~The Church Secretary~
Her Indulgency ran from five in the morning to whenever Hank got up. It was her only opportunity to do what she wanted, and she chose to paint. She asked the paint to reveal something about her. “Painting is the silence of thought and the music of sight.” said Orhan Pamuk. For the first couple months, the Indulgency felt virtuous.
Then it slid into an addiction, another selfish act. Yet she persisted. At least she painted on paper, which made storage less of a problem. The paintings did stack up. Nugatory objects. She didn’t want to be resentful. There was nothing wrong with her life. What she deserved. What she made it.
Tromp, tromp, tromp. Hank came downstairs and kissed her and everything rushed toward the vanishing point. Ruby looked at the clock. He made coffee. She made oatmeal and they read the paper and she got ready for her first day of work as a part-time church secretary.
Today, ha ha, she’d make her life a joke.
She walked two blocks to the church and let herself in. The lights were off; the entire building was empty. Where was Pastor Dan? She sat at her desk, the top of which was covered in five inches of mail, sermons and bulletins. Horrible. She had no idea what to do. She got up to peer through the double glass doors into his office. Tried not to despair. Some hoarders were tidy; some left paths. She returned to her desk and spent fifteen despondent minutes sorting through the top layer. Still no pastor. She threw outdated documents in the trash. Went through desk drawers and file cabinets, familiarizing herself. She read the pastor’s personnel file; he was sixty-one, a year younger than her. He was described as an outstanding bible scholar.
She tossed more stuff. Before long she was trashing like a fiend—the absent pastor, mini-cassettes and dispensers of correction tape pissed her off. The thud of items hitting the trash was so satisfying she erred on the side of nihilism. And then she saw the joke—she was among the nugatory objects.
By the time Pastor Dan arrived, the war was over, and she’d won. Petty.
He seemed surprised to see her. And the three full waste baskets.
She did a lot of head-nodding as he explained her job. It could have been worse; he could’ve pretended not to know he was an asshole. At twelve o’clock sharp, she gathered her things, said goodbye and left, which also startled him.
When she got home, overwrought, she called Colleen, who was Dan’s wife and Ruby’s friend. Triangulating was a bad idea, but … “Is Dan that way at home?”
“You mean weird? Did he pick his nose?”
“Like … a hoarder.”
“Clinically speaking, he’s compulsive-obsessive with depression.”
That silenced her. Not an asshole after all.
Colleen said, “I don’t know if he told you, but he sees a therapist.”
“I couldn’t tell if he was joking.”
“He does treat it as a joke. He comes home and makes fun of her.”
“Well, that’s healthy, right? He hasn’t lost his sense of humor.” There was no trace of humor this morning. Still, if he was married to Colleen, it had to be there. “Thanks for clueing me in. I mean, I couldn’t find a perspective, but …”
“Change is rough for him. Hang in there.”
“Don’t worry, I’m starting to find him fascinating.”
The next morning, during her Indulgency, Ruby searched her stack of paintings until she found a landscape that, in her mind, was imbued with ecstatic vision—it looked like Jesus’ last sight from the cross. Or possibly not, but it was good. She found a framed print that she’d bought at Goodwill and took it apart. She cut her painting to the frame, inserted it, replaced the backing, the little wedges and the glass. Excellent.
Work was boring. Not only did Dan not notice her painting, which she hung on the wall opposite her desk, but he made no effort to know her. Conversation was strictly job-related. It wasn’t even conversation; he just told her stuff. What to do. As soon as he was satisfied she could fend for herself, he hurried off on mindless errands. He did not want to be around her. Screw him. What the hell is a smart, interesting woman to do?
She spent the rest of the week painting hard. Before she lost her real job, she worked with inmates at the county jail, helping them transition to life on the outside, staying in their lives as long as they’d let her. Once a month, she invited them over for cards. Now she was painting them from sketches and memories. It was slow going, but this morning, she’d completed another one—Otto playing the harmonica. When Hank tromped downstairs, she dared invite him into the room she called her studio. He was a bona fide artist—a sculptor with an MFA; his work had been shown in museums.
“I can’t tell if that flowerish thing is growing out of him, or if he generated it by playing the harmonica. I like the weirdness of it.”
“It’s the germ of something new.”
“Yeah. Mystery. An essential element.”
After this pronouncement, he headed for the kitchen, stopped and turned back. “Don’t forget Frieda’s party.”
Fat chance. She was ever eager to escape her claustrophobic existence in Inwood.
One couldn’t say it was unseasonably warm, because the seasons had gone to hell. Ruby piled her hair on top of her head and wore a sleeveless Mondrian-style dress and sandals in late September. She fell asleep during the hour’s drive to South Bend.
Drinks were set up on the deck beside Frieda’s charming old Victorian, in a cozy neighborhood of brick streets and tall trees. The guests were artists—a filmmaker, a printmaker, a couple photographers, painters and writers—who clustered around Don, Hank’s pal and the best painter in South Bend. Or anywhere, if you believed Hank. The circle opened to admit him. He and Don were the same height, a little taller than the others; they looked good bantering back and forth in an old-school, macho way. The assembled artists sipped wine and made clever remarks. The poet was the only one besides Ruby listening more cleverly than she talked.
Don said, “I almost feel bad about winning the prize at the social justice show.”
Ruby and Hank had heard this before. At the last minute, Don would retitle a painting to fit the theme, enter the show and steal the prize from more earnest but lesser artists. His paintings had nothing to do with social justice.
The poet obligingly asked why he felt bad about winning.
Don explained his process; he lived in the hood, he painted his surroundings, he painted only to paint. He pointed to the splatters on his jeans. “Everything I do is social justice.”
Ha ha, the assembled artists chuckled along with darling Don.
Hank drank fast, as usual, and quickly became loud and proud of the fact that Ruby was the best-looking woman at the party. She thought stop, we’re too old, but he went on to feel smug about the fact that Don didn’t bring anyone. He said, “Ruby, you should enter that show next year.”
Everyone turned to look at her. Don said, “You paint?”
“Of course. Doesn’t everyone?” She kept it light.
Hank persisted. “She’s good. I’m not just saying that.”
But he was saying it. And it wasn’t his to say. He cast her wannabe pearls before drunken swine, making him even more condescending than Don. Hank won the asshole contest at her expense. She flushed red, reared out of her chair and grabbed a bottle by the neck.
The poet shot her a sideways glance.
She sent daggers back.
The poet said, “As the gap between the first and third worlds widens, the boundaries between artists and terrorists blur.”
Everyone tried to imagine the poet in a suicide vest.
Thom, an older queen who instinctively disliked the poet, jumped in with a non-sequitur about feeling goddessy when he facilitated salons. Apparently, he held them regularly. Thom’s partner, Hugh, was amazed at the way Thom could participate in multiple conversations. Frieda archly asked what Thom was working on. A novel about werewolves and interior design. Ha ha, everyone chuckled over the new darling. Egged on, Thom described the climax of the story, his rape by a werewolf. If Ruby hadn’t been pissed, it might’ve been funny. Maybe she’d tell Hank he was a narcissist. That she tired of him constantly supplying the narrative. That when he did make an effort to think about someone other than himself, he should just shut up and think.
The next morning, she painted herself getting a mammogram, one breast squashed flat between metal plates.
Listening to Dan preach, it occurred to Ruby that this sermon had the same message as all his sermons. Don’t give up. The titles and scriptures and trappings changed weekly, but Sunday after Sunday he said, even though there was no evidence, simply continuing was a good thing. She allowed her thoughts to drift, planning to meet him at the end. Speaking of ends, this morning, before she awoke, she heard the voice of a man calling “Enderly, come.” The voice was striding through a grassy meadow, the voice of a man young for his years, a man who could sing tenor or base. A man who knew that a good ending would come.
As soon as she walked in the door, after church, Hank asked if she was mad at him.
How to answer?
He took the bag of groceries out of her hands and said, “Is this still—”
“… about Frieda’s party? Because I didn’t know your painting was a secret.” He opened the refrigerator, reached into the bag and pulled out cilantro. “Oh, good. You remembered.”
“No, I’m not mad, and yes, it is.”
“Now that they know I’m painting, they’ve already started prying. Bill even suggested I enter a juried show—having never seen my work. This rush to judgment …”
“Don’t say anything.” He jammed his lips together and bulged his eyes. “I don’t want to be included in the pantheon of artists, with you and Don on top, Bill and Kim below, and everyone else beneath. I don’t want to know my place.”
He kept his lips together, as if trying not to smile, which made it worse.
Ruby said, “Remember that movie? Wolfpack? Six brothers. Their dad was the only one who went outside the apartment. The brothers stayed inside and made these incredible home movies with props and costumes and sound tracks. They made stuff out of nothing and were kind of happy. That’s how it is for me. I haven’t arrived at the need to venture out and I don’t want to be forced.”
Hank raised his hands into a don’t shoot position. “Who’s forcing you?”
“You are. Someday soon the art cops will be at the door. They’ll haul my paintings off to jail and I’ll die of shame.”
“I’m always the bad guy.”
“You’re a good bad guy.” She turned her left hip out, lifted her leg and set the sole of her foot against her right calf. She raised her arms and brought her palms together over her head. “I’m a good tree.”
When Ruby left, after her first half-day of work, Dan counted to sixty. He walked to the door and looked out in time to see her vanish behind the buildings on Rowland St. “Shit!” Shit, shitting double-shit until he tired of it.
He pulled his black Sunday robe off the hanger and took it upstairs, spread it flat on the carpeted floor of the sanctuary and lay on it, staring up at the vaulted ceiling. He was still there, praying, twenty minutes later, when he heard someone come in. He scrambled to his feet and went downstairs. Colleen was putting a document in the copy machine.
She looked up at him. “Oh, hi.”
“How’d it go with Ruby?”
“Worlds of fun.”
“She didn’t talk. Why wouldn’t she talk? All women talk.”
Colleen exploded in laughter.
Dan yelled, “Look! She threw everything in the trash. Without consulting me.” He gestured at the waste baskets.
Colleen lifted an oddly-shaped piece of hard plastic from the trash. “Oh, dear. What’s this?”
“Probably something important.”
Colleen opened a desk drawer—there was now actually room in the drawer—and started to put the thing back, but Dan said, “No. Leave it. I can … but I won’t. I’m impotent.”
Colleen studied him. “Well, good then. God sent Ruby to catapult you out of your funk.”
“Depression is not a funk. I’m a colorless guy who considers suicide, is unmoved by rainbows, and hates the word enuf.”
“You’re a well-read smart-ass.” She gathered him into her strong arms.
But the next morning was the same; the waste baskets had been emptied and refilled. There she sat wearing a low-cut sweater unbefitting a church secretary. Her silence was an assault. Dan tried to outlast her. He read the Bible while she folded bulletins. Acts, because she was the type to dislike Paul. But before he realized what he was doing, he opened his mouth to inform her of something entirely unnecessary.
He picked up the mail and said he was going to the Post Office.
He felt her eyes on his back, propelling him forward. He shortened his steps, resisting her power, because he knew, if he let her, she would push him faster and faster until he lost his balance and fell into the abyss. But even after he exited the church, he couldn’t take normal-length steps. He couldn’t remember what normal walking felt like. He was becoming a weirdo. It wasn’t Ruby, it was his damn medicine. His damn therapist. It was ungodly.
Or, maybe Colleen was right, and it was Ruby; she was an exorcist calling out his demons.
By the time he arrived at his therapist’s office, he was prepared. He nodded at the receptionist, but didn’t sit down. After a few minutes, the receptionist indicated he could go in. He stepped inside the office of the woman he’d been seeing for the past two years. She turned from her computer and smiled.
He said, “I’ve decided to end my therapy. Thanks for your efforts on—”
Her eyebrows lifted in concern. “Is it the medicine? Because—”
“It’s all wrong. I’m done. Goodbye.” He turned and walked away.
“Normal!” he said to the receptionist, when she looked up in surprise. He went into the bathroom and took a huge shit.
He came out of the bathroom smiling, left the building and approached his car. Instead of getting in, he wandered down to the river. He remembered how to skip. He felt silly and it made him happy, so happy he stopped to get ice cream on his way home. Mint chocolate chip, Colleen’s favorite.
That night they made love for the first time in six months. Possibly longer.
Just as they were falling asleep, Colleen said, “You seem different. Did something happen?”
“I killed my therapist.”
When he arrived at the office the next morning, there was nothing new in the waste baskets. Ruby was wearing a turtle neck. She said something innocuous about the weather. Were the hostilities over? He told a Presbyterian joke. She laughed and said he seemed different.
“I walked through a wall.”
“There comes a time in a man’s life when, to get where he has to go—if there are no doors or windows, he walks through a wall.”
“At least you didn’t spout that crap about God opening a window.”
Ah, irreverence. Now, maybe, it would be okay.
Over the next few days, he couldn’t decide if it was or wasn’t okay. He couldn’t relax, but the big, healthy shits continued, and he was no longer afraid of her. He told himself there was an upside to mental illness. For example, the mask he wore allowed him to nurse his wounds in secret.
Colleen’s voice in his head: you’re only as sick as your sickest secret. One of the slogans she brought home from AA. He didn’t have any secrets, did he? Aside from his worthlessness? Lack of sex drive. The depth of his despair. The congregation must suspect. Why else would he constantly preach about faith? Unless, perhaps, he was a prophet. A golden prickle warmed his body. For time would fail me to tell of Gideon, Barak, Samson, Jephthah, of David and Samuel and the prophets.” And Daniel. Ending his therapy was a breakthrough, and he could smell an even bigger one coming. He’d stop merely existing and begin to live. A miracle. Whether it was promised by God through Jesus or whether it was being proclaimed in his guts on a molecular level, he wasn’t sure. Maybe both.
Perhaps the breakthrough would arrive in the form of a test. He was confident, if he recognized the test, he could pass. That’s where discipline and obsession paid off. The problem would be if he failed to recognize what God put in front of him. So then, constant vigilance.
He looked up from his bible and saw the painting on the wall. He pointed. “Where did that come from?”
Ruby stopped typing. “I brought it in last week. I paint. I thought it would be nice to have something on the wall.” She looked at it critically. “What do you think?”
“It’s the Transfiguration,” he said, tenderly.