The phone rings so early on Saturday morning, Rose tears herself from sleep and runs to the kitchen, the dread of dire illness or accidents propelling her down the stairs to the rhythm of the Hail Mary repeating in her head.
“Yes?” she pants into the receiver.
“Rosie? You’ll never guess what!” Helen’s voice is squeaky with excitement. Rose hears the swoosh of washing machines in the background.
“Helen? It’s only six-fifty. We’re sleeping in,” Rose whispers, her s-es hissing. She hopes her descent didn’t waken the household. Everett has looked so tired lately. And Valley came in late from her date.
“I know. I know. But this one can’t wait. I had to tell you.”
Rose tries to chase the edge from her voice. Poor Helen’s been divorced so long, she’s forgotten the pleasure of drowsing in bed. “Tell me what?”
“I got in early and was waiting for the dryer to quit tumbling to yank Jed Peterson’s stuff before it wrinkled—you know how picky he is—when I looked up to see an old friend walking into Millie’s.”
Rose’s heart has slowed to match the glub-dub of the washers. She pictures Helen at her usual post—at the pay phone by the laundromat’s plate glass, spying on the donut shop. “Who, Helen? Tell me.”
Rose mouths the syllables. Her third finger finds her mouth and her teeth search for loose cuticle. Rob’s is the one name she’d hoped never to hear again when he disappeared from town seventeen years ago.
“Rosie? Are you still there? Is something wrong?”
“Everett’s calling. I’ve got to go.” Rose’s voice is barely audible now. Her mouth tastes metallic. She puts the receiver back on the hook and lingers a moment, as though still connected to Rob by Helen’s voice. Then she tiptoes into the bedroom, checks to make sure Everett is still sleeping, grabs the first dress her hand falls on in the closet, and runs to the bathroom.
She must have brushed her teeth, combed her hair and zipped the dress, but she only remembers heading for the car.
Her Galaxy heads toward town, slowing abruptly where the speed limit drops from fifty to twenty-five. Chief Dudley waits in his cruiser behind the same bush every day, clocking all the residents. She salutes as she passes him, then coasts toward the three downtown blocks of Eden proper, where she lurches from one corner to the next. It’s silly to have so many stop signs in a one-bank town.
In the middle of one block she pauses for old Mr. Cockburn to cross to Millie’s from the loading dock at the Feed ‘n Seed. “Nod and act normal,” she mutters through a forced smile.
While Mr. Cockburn dodders across in front of her car, the fingers of his left hand trailing across her hood for balance, she oh-so-casually glances to her left. The hunched backs of the Saturday morning regulars show through the window at Millie’s Dunk and Sip, middle-aged men straddling counter stools in their John Deere caps, chugging hot coffee as if June temperatures didn’t faze them. She can just hear their voices, chewing on predictable topics between swallows—whether Reagan’s new agriculture secretary will favor Ohio or if the plate ump in last night’s Reds’ game was on the take. But even squinting she can’t make out one back from the next. Can’t tell if one of them belongs to Rob. How had Helen been so sure? Maybe she imagined it.
At the corner, one of Eden’s single mothers leaves Dud’s Suds with a laundry basket of towels balanced on one hip. The woman brushes the hair off her flushed brow, and two raggedy kids with green mouths come straggling behind her, sucking on lollipops. Rose slows down in case one runs out in the street, remembering the days when Valley wakened her at dawn. The woman steps into the road, then stops to make eye contact with Rose. The children bump into their mother’s back and bounce off. Rose makes a mental note of the kids’ health, as though she’s personally assigned to watch over fatherless children everywhere. Welfare brats, Everett calls them. Rose winces when she hears him, the judgment in his voice slashing at her insides.
There’s a parking spot on the other side of the street one block up, where she’ll have a good view of Main Street without Helen seeing her. She maneuvers the car in a three-point turn using the alley next to the theater and parallel parks facing Millie’s. Then she pulls her checkbook and a pen from her purse, so if anyone wonders why she’s just sitting there, she can pretend to be balancing her account. But no one is outside except for the single mom who shoves the kids into her rusty boat of a Chevy. Rose strains to see if she can make out car seats through the windshield, though maybe the kids are too old by now. The Chevy cruises by Rose, the kids standing behind the broad bench seat while their mother flips through radio channels. “Seat belts!” Rose hollers, then claps her hand to her mouth. It’s none of her business. Fortunately the radio is blaring too loud for them to hear. Still, she’s always telling Valley to think before she speaks.
The street is still for long minutes afterward, and Rose considers where Rob might stay if he were really back in town. His mother’s house sold a few weeks back, so he’s probably with Phil Langston down at his trailer in Shady Acres Estates. They buddied around in high school, she seems to remember, though those things change in seventeen years, judging from herself and Helen anyway. The two of them hardly spoke until after graduation. Helen smoked in the woods behind the school with the fast crowd while Rose, who didn’t own her own clarinet, stayed after school to practice in the band room. Everett hung out in the hall outside the room, so she wasn’t totally alone. Each season Rob was on a ball field of one shape or another. All the girls went ga-ga from the stands, which made Rosie’s night with him all the more miraculous.
Just then, Millie’s screen door swings open and Rose sees a tanned arm holding the door for some others. A bunch of the regulars ramble out, turning and talking to the person holding the door, jostling each other and laughing. Then Rob steps onto the stoop in jeans and a tucked-in Tee shirt. “Sweet Jesus,” comes from Rose’s lips unbidden. She fingers the rayon of her dress, rubbing its silky softness over her bare thighs. He stands with his hands in his hip pockets, rocking slightly from heels to toes. She’d know that stance anywhere—a man-version of the boy who, late one night in the warm water of Kaiser Lake, first freed her body from more than her bathing suit. Rob’s a little broader for all these years, but then so is she. Still he’s kept in shape. Gravity’s been kind. His hair is shorter now, freshly washed and combed, and he has a moustache that hides his upper lip. He turns from the doorway, waving to the guys going the other way, and heads up the street toward her. She ducks down, sprawling across the front seat, wishing the hot pink flowers on her dress would die. The sensation that kept her awake in the long nights after his disappearance—her head threatening to spin off into space—grips her once again.
The plastic upholstery grabs at her skin. Is she, a thirty-five-year-old grown woman, really lying on a car seat on Main Street? Rob’s presence has resurrected her schoolgirl self. He still has that power.
She can’t resist opening her eyes when she hears him walk by. He glances into her car and their eyes meet. Valley’s smile flits over his mouth and across his eyes. Dimples pinpoint his sunken cheeks. But if he recognizes her, he doesn’t let on. He walks on by. She exhales forcefully enough to blow hair wisps off her forehead and tells herself there’s nothing to worry about. He hasn’t missed a single step. Perhaps he only smiled at the sight of a woman lying on a car seat. Rose lies there longer, butterflies dancing inside her stomach. Why should she feel foolish? It makes perfect sense to lie down in your car when you don’t feel well.
But that’s nonsense, and Rose knows it.
When enough time has passed that she’s certain he’s not still close, Rose sits up and searches for him in her rear view mirror. He’s walked two blocks. His shoulders preside over his narrow waist and buttocks—round muscle her palms remember.
He disappears around a corner, and Rose looks at her own reflection in the mirror. Crow’s feet have begun to crinkle the corners of her eyes, but her brow is still unlined. It’s the one advantage of carrying a little extra weight. Her skin remains smooth and youthful, even if her hips and thighs make it tough to find a bathing suit. She tenses her neck muscles, widening her mouth into a grimace, then relaxes again. Her chin muscles look tighter for it, she’s sure, and she does the exercise a few more times. A double chin would spoil her face.
When Rose realizes what she’s been doing, she clenches the steering wheel. What will it take for her to learn the man is poison? To appreciate Everett’s gentle sweetness? She fastens her seatbelt. God knows why Rob has returned to Eden, unless it’s to look her up and find his daughter. He probably doesn’t even know Valley’s a girl—unless he’s been in touch with Phil. But what does Phil know? More importantly, has he ever talked to Everett? They’ve never been friends, but there’s no controlling who happens to sit down on the next stool at Millie’s.
At least Everett’s not in there now. She starts the engine, pulls out of the parking space, and heads home to her husband.
Home again and undressed so Everett won’t ask where she’s been, Rose busies herself in the stuffy kitchen, parting the café curtains, then thumping and ratcheting the wooden window up. “Who needs him anyway?” she mutters, giving the window frame a hard whack with the palm of her hand. “Everett’s the better man.” She lifts up on the frame unsuccessfully, then gives the frame another good thunk, as if energetic enough, she might not only raise the window, but send Rob right back where he came from. By the time she gets one window up, she’s broken a sweat. The morning breeze feels fresh on her skin, though it holds the telltale heaviness of another humid day.
On her way by the drawer, Rose chooses a chocolate from the box of Fanny Farmer she keeps hidden under the silverware tray. With the first bite, chocolate and mint mingle on her tongue. She runs cold water into her mother’s old aluminum pot, measures coffee grounds into the basket, and adds tiny pieces of broken eggshell to cut the bitterness. Everett gave her an automatic coffeemaker on Mother’s Day—the expensive one with the timer so she could wake up to fresh coffee. Somehow though, she’s never unboxed it. She’d have to read directions. Program it. Adjust the quantity of grounds. The old way works fine.
Rose turns the knob on the gas range. A whiff of propane wafts up before the burner poofs into flame. She centers the pot, then listens at the bottom of the stairs for bedroom sounds. Everett isn’t stirring, though it’s now nearly eight. Valley’s room is silent.
Rose tiptoes up the stairs, stops at her daughter’s door, and pushes it open. She can’t see Valley’s head past the enormous jar on the bedside stand where Valley raises butterflies. The current resident is a green caterpillar with a pink underbelly, nothing but a worm to Rose, but at least it’s in a jar. It hangs from its twig by a silken thread, but appears to be floating in air.
Valley lies facing the wall, her body curled up. Rose cranes her neck to see the narrow chin with the wide brow that has always reminded her of the Flemish Madonna that hung in her childhood church. Valley is still dressed in the shirt she wore on her date, though she has covered herself in the quilt Rose pieced for her eighth birthday. The mascara Valley layers on her blond lashes is dried in black streaks down her face. “Mother of God, have mercy,” Rose murmurs, wondering that she fell asleep before Valley came in. Sex does that to Rose—relaxes her and makes her irresponsible. She should have behaved herself.
She fingers the scapular she’s kept in her bathrobe pocket since Everett insisted she take it off. The little picture of the Virgin is hardly visible now, sweat-stained and talcum furry, attached to the same shoelace she’d worn around her neck throughout her childhood. Valley’s pocketbook is looped over the bedpost. Rose lifts its leather strap and searches inside for the zipper pocket. With the scapular hidden inside, she replaces the purse. Then Rose goes to the net hammock in the corner of the room where Valley’s old stuffed animals lie jumbled together, chooses a lamb with a tattered pink bow, and tucks it in the nook of Valley’s chin.
At her own bedroom door, Rose sees the slope of Everett’s bare shoulder peeking out from the quilt, and tries to let the thought of him propped over her, broad and strong on straight elbows, flower in her mind. But in the morning light his pectorals look soft, flabbier than she remembered, and her mother’s voice plays in her head: “Control yourself.” “Pleasure doesn’t last.” “Eat only enough to know you’ve eaten.” Her mother speaks in a solemn tone—the only tone Rose has heard since the night a heart attack orphaned her. She presses her thumbs into the pudge around her midriff, tattling, tattling on her. She used to be thin.
She kneels on the new waterbed and bounces slightly. The mattress sloshes with the movement, and Everett’s body teeters back and forth. The musk of his skin—heightened from their exertion the night before—is slightly sour. His eyes are closed, but a smirk plays across his lips. He sneaks a hand toward her and tugs on her bathrobe tie.
“Not now, Everett. We have to talk. Were you awake when Valley came in last night?”
“I woke at 1:10 and checked her room. She was asleep.”
“Her mascara’s streaked all down her face. I knew that boy was no good.”
“When she cried last month you blamed her hormones. Why is it the boy’s fault now?”
Rose rolls onto her bottom. The mattress water cuddles her hips. “When she introduced him, he wouldn’t look me in the eye.”
“I’m not surprised. You never had to go in a strange house and meet a girl’s parents.” He tries to pull her over next to him, to comfort her.
Rose resists. Someone has to get upset about these things.
Everett gives up with a sigh. “She’s sixteen, Rosie. Nearly grown. You can’t run her life or choose her friends.”
You never did care about Valley, Rose thinks for the umpteenth time. She scoots to the edge of the bed. The mattress undulates. He bought it on some silly whim—one of those midlife things, she suspects. At least it’s not some overpriced coffin, a motorcycle or a racecar. Still. It has to be a sin to be so comfortable. “It will serve you right if she gets pregnant,” Rose sputters.
“For godsake, Rosie. She’s not a tramp.”
Rose hugs herself to hide her cringing. How’s she supposed to tell him when he says things like that?
Everett tickles her upper arm, then reaches under for her breast. Rose pushes his hand off. “I do trust her. It’s you boys I don’t trust.” She purposely bounces the bed and escapes his reach. “My mother was right. Men only want one thing.”
Rose drives past the brick elementary school and adjacent park, then crosses the bridge over the Miami River. The Catholic Church, Our Lady of the Rosary, squats on the other side, a brick fortress facing east, bordered on three sides with blacktop before the farmland picks up once again. She doesn’t know where else to go. Her conscience—an entity so real Rose can’t figure how it never appears on a diagram of the human body—rants in her head: This is what happens when you fornicate and lie. You should have told Everett the truth before he married you. Of course she should have. And she didn’t. Now she’s certain of one thing: Rob and Everett in a town this small is one man too many. Maybe the priest can tell her what to do.
There are no cars in the parking lot, only a woman with long, graying hair out by the dumpster. The woman is picking through the trash as if she’s lost something. Stubby white disks lie around her feet. To Rosie they look like burned votive candles, but they can’t be. The church wouldn’t throw prayers for people’s loved ones in the trash. That would be wrong. They must be leftover biscuits from a church supper. The woman is homeless and hungry.
Rose parks where she can’t see the dumpster and squeezes through the church’s heavy oak and iron door. The smell of tallow hangs over the narthex, and she slows her pace, inhaling deeply, as if wax has the power to sanctify her worldly thoughts. Instead it reminds her of crayons. She fumbles around in her purse for her grocery money. She finds a five, folds it in fourths, and fits it through the slot in the donation box. Then she lights a candle on the tiered table and asks Our Lady to watch over her confession. She finds peace in the Virgin’s sweet face, as she had in the months after Rob’s desertion when she took comfort, knowing the Holy Mother knew how she felt.
The sanctuary lies beyond a carved wooden archway. Rose pulls a scarf from her pocketbook to cover her hair. Father Andrews is at the altar, tidying up the morning Mass. He is stooped, as if burdened by the weight of the crucifix hanging over his head. Rose hides her face with the scarf, stands before the confessional, coughs. He motions for her to enter the booth, then joins her, on the other side of the partition.
“Bless me Father, for I have sinned.” The rote learned in childhood pours forth as through a broken dike. “It has been one week since my last confession.”
“Go on.” His voice is thin and hollow and makes Rose’s voice sound shrill in her head. Her stomach gurgles and she remembers the chocolate she shouldn’t have eaten if she wants Communion.
“There’s something I haven’t told you.”
“It happened some time back.”
“I was seventeen.”
“In love.” There she’s said it.
She can’t bring herself to go on. How could a priest understand the terror, the shame?
“And you . . . ?” he coaxes.
“I was so afraid after it happened. I didn’t tell anyone.”
“That you . . . ?”
Why must he make her say it? What other sin do you commit with someone you love? “I did it. Okay? But it wasn’t just that,” she hurries on, afraid she’ll chicken out if she doesn’t spit the whole thing out fast. “One thing led to another.” Through the mesh screen she smells the wine on his breath, and she thinks of the greater sin she’s committed. Her throat tightens so she can barely speak. “Oh, God. I’ve had Communion anyway,” she whispers. “Every week.”
She hears him shift in the booth. The silence deepens. She begins to babble. “I had to, or my mother would have known something was wrong. After awhile, when no one caught me and nothing happened, I just, you know, forgot it was wrong, I guess.” That about sums up how she’s been married nearly seventeen years without telling Everett. After all, if no one found out and nothing happened, what good did the truth-telling do? Even now, she is only hurting herself with all this confessing. If she had any sense she’d walk backwards out of the sanctuary this minute and undo the damage. She pulls the scarf down over her face, afraid the priest can see through walls, even in darkness.
The bench on the priest’s side creaks. “Let’s adjourn to the room next door,” he says. “An open discussion might be more helpful.”
Open discussion? Rose’s head feels light. Father Andrews is supposed to pronounce her penance and administer absolution, not insist she confess the new way. Face-to-face, indeed. And she hasn’t even mentioned deceiving Everett. She can’t imagine saying it in broad daylight. “And if that’s not possible?”
“Then your priorities are wrong. Nothing is more important than your immortal soul.”
She struggles up from flattened knees, steadying herself on the walls of the confessional and pulling the scarf closer. “Thank you, Father,” she says, gulping air. But she’s respectful, not thankful. He just wants to see who she is so he can deny her communion. Why should she tell this man anything ? If she tells anyone, it should be Everett.
Rose drives back through town to the Safeway Market at the other end, hitting the gas rather than stopping at the yellow light by the new plaza. If she’d been born Protestant, she wouldn’t have to confess to anyone but God. Everett’s probably right about the Pope. God didn’t make him infallible. Her mother did.
The plaza parking lot is full of people. Summer Saturdays are like this— little leaguers, girl scouts, Rotarians, all out raising funds. Rose checks the supply of quarters in her ash tray for the kids in their uniforms, peddling raffle tickets or collecting coins in little cans to buy new catcher’s equipment. By the highway some high schoolers from the drama club are lined up in rocking chairs, tilting back and forth to the rhythm of “Rock around the Clock” blaring from a loud speaker. Valley pledged a nickel an hour to her new friend Danielle if she makes it all twenty-four hours without throwing up. Rose waves to Danielle. Her chair is barely moving, and she’s already sipping a Coke.
Once past the rockers, Rose searches for a parking space, hunkering down in the driver’s seat and watching the lot ahead and all her mirrors in rapid succession in case Rob’s nearby, when a child darts in front of her car. Her brakes squeal, her tires skid. A woman’s shriek arcs over the parking lot. Air rushes into Rose’s lungs. She feels her car settle back into itself. The boy stands mere inches in front of her bumper. His mother stands in a puddle of groceries and broken bags, her face still frozen in the scream though the sound now floats a few hundred feet off the ground. A broken bottle of apple juice seeps through brown paper.
Rose falls in a slump over her steering wheel, barely peeking over the top at the child and his mother. The mother steps from the rubble of her labor and snatches the child up. The child starts to wail. Blessed, blessed sound. Rose exhales as though she’s breathing for all of them. “Thank you, Jude, glorious Apostle, faithful servant and friend of Jesus,” she prays. Her hands pocket themselves in opposite underarms, to stop the prickling sensation. The mother sobs now too. Rose watches the two of them, the mother rocking from one foot to the other and holding that precious head in her palm, kissing his hair, as Rose herself might have held Valley this morning if her daughter were younger.
The woman carries her son to a station wagon nearby with no thought to collecting her groceries. Rose parks and hurries over to the jumble of food, fetching a coffee can that’s rolled under a fender. The bags are broken and soggy, but she retrieves the boxes of macaroni and cheese from the puddle of apple juice and stacks them in a pile next to the instant oatmeal, the English muffins, and the Peter Pan. She is both sorry and grateful the woman hasn’t reappeared. If that child had been hit— She refuses the thought. She’s told Valley never, ever to speed in a school zone. That if she ever hit a child, she would never recover. But why wasn’t the child up in the cart seat where drivers could see him?
After a furtive glance around for Rob, Rose runs into the store, breasts cradled in her arms as if she were cold. She finds the cereal aisle and wanders up and down. Her heart is drubbing hard as she is alternately the driver, then the mother of the crying child. “Your priorities are wrong. Nothing is more important than your immortal soul,” the priest says into the hollow space the woman’s shriek carved in her head. It’s always a maze, this aisle—the store brand’s look-alike boxes mixed in with the real thing—-but today it’s impossible to find the Shredded Wheat. Rose takes down one box after another, can’t think why, and puts it back, finally settling for Cheerios. On her way to the cashier, she grabs a bag of pink, yellow, and brown sugar wafers—the ones Valley reached for when she was a toddler in the cart seat— and a palm-size red, yellow and blue rubber ball for the toddling boy. She breezes through the express lane, forgetting to buy cream, and takes off with her bagged stash.
As her eyes search the parking lot for the station wagon belonging to the mother and boy, a singsong refrain catches her ear, rising and falling over the chortle of idling motors, the rattle of carts on the blacktop and the pulsing bass of “Rock Around the Clock.” Rose traces the chant to the end of the plaza where the band parents usually hold their bake sales and raffles. Some kind of auction is in progress down there. The auctioneer is gobbling away, badgering the crowd to bid higher. She hears a name called out—Sister Mary Theresa. A nun’s name. Rose is pulled toward the auctioneer as if his voice is calling her name. In a way, he is. Once upon a time, Theresa of the Little Flower was her favorite saint.
At the outer edge of the group she peers between heads. Steel bed frames stand in the back of a truck, bound into units— a headboard, footrest, and one-piece metal spring in each package—labeled with the name of a nun. The auctioneer’s assistant steps through the crowd to hand Rose a flyer:
Buy a bed slept in by a Sister of Charity
St. Agnes Women’s Shelter
The Sisters of Charity, the flyer says in small print, have donated their old beds to raise funds. The St. Agnes Shelter will provide home delivery to anyone donating over twenty dollars per bed.
Only five frames remain in the back of the pick-up. The auctioneer begins the bidding on Sister Mary Theresa’s bed at twenty dollars. A woman to her right raises her hand.
“Twenty, I hear twenty. Who’ll give me twenty-five?”
A woman on the left end raises her hand.
The auctioneer points to the woman on the left. There’s a hush and Rose feels the mounting excitement. Perhaps it’s a sign, she thinks, the direction she’d wanted from the priest, delivered by an alternate means. How else can she explain it? It’s not every day you run across a nun’s bed at the grocery. Everett would call it coincidence, but then Everett believes the earth came about after an explosion, which makes as much sense to Rose as throwing calico squares up in the air and expecting them to land in a quilting pattern.
Rose rummages in her purse. Her fingers find the plastic grain of her checkbook. Thanks to Rob’s appearance this morning, she knows just how much she has.
“Thirty,” says the woman to her right.
The auctioneer looks left. “Will you go thirty-five?”
Rose raises her hand high before the left-side woman can answer, recalling the details of a bedtime story her mother read to her often. A story about St. Clare protecting herself and her convent by holding the blessed host before a band of marauding soldiers.
“Do I hear forty?” the auctioneer asks. The left-side woman raises her hand.
Rose looks at the woman’s clothes to get some idea how high she might go. Her shoes are polished but the heels are run down. Her hair is flat against her head. Not the beauty parlor kind.
“Fifty,” Rose says defiantly.
“I hear fifty.” He turns right. “Will you go sixty?” That woman bows her head. The left-side woman turns away. Rose has won. She puts her groceries down and fishes for her checkbook.
“Going once. Going twice. Sold to the lady in the flowered dress for fifty dollars,” the auctioneer proclaims. “God bless you, dear.”
Rose smiles back. He is not a priest, but it will have to do.