A New Life

She needed to start over, she knew, but what could she do with a band of Christians out to save her soul?

THEY MEET BY CHANCE IN FRONT OF THE bank. Elizabeth is a recent widow, pale and dry-eyed, unable to cry. Paul, an old friend, old boyfriend, starts smiling the moment he sees her. She’s never seen him look so happy, she thinks. Under one arm he carries a wide farm checkbook, a rubber band around it so things won’t fall out.

“Well. This is providential.” He grips her hand and holds on, ignoring the distance he’s long kept between them. Everything about him seems animated. Even his hair, thick, dark, shot with early gray, stands up slightly from his head instead of lying down flat. In the sunlight the gray looks electric. “We’ve been thinking about you,” he says, still smiling. “Should have been to see you.”

“But you did come.” Something is different about him, she thinks, something major. Not just the weight he’s put on.

“We came when everyone else was there and you didn’t need us. We should have been back long ago. How are you?”

“Fine,” she says, to end it. “Thank you.”

“You don’t look fine.”

He frowns. “You’re still grieving, when John is with God now, and well again. Happy.”

So that’s it. She’s heard that Paul and his wife,

Louise, are in a religious group just started up outside the church. They call themselves Workers of the Vineyard. Like a rock band, someone said.

Elizabeth turns toward the bank as if she hasn’t heard what Paul said. Behind her, small-town traffic moves up and down the street, a variety of midsize cars and pickup trucks, plus an occasional big car or van. In front, the newly remodeled bank updates a street of old brick buildings. Some are painted white, green, gray. Around the corner the beauty shop is pink.

This is the southern Bible Belt, where people talk about God the way they talk about the weather, about His will and His blessings, about why He lets things happen. The Vineyard people say also that God talks to them. Their meeting place is a small house on Green Street, where they meet, according to neighbors, “all the time.”

Their leader is the new young pastor of the Presbyterian church, called by his first name, Steve.

Regular church members look on the group with suspicion. “Crazy” is the word that reaches Steve.

“Some thought Jesus was a little crazy too,” he has countered, with a smile. He is a spellbinding preacher, and no one moves or dozes while he speaks, but his church congregation is split in two. Some are for him and some against him, but no one is neutral. He is defined by extremes.

Paul opens the door to the bank for Elizabeth. “What are you doing tonight?” he asks, from behind her.

She whirls about to face him.

“Louise and I could come over after supper. How about it?” He winks.

He couldn’t get along without the winks and jokes, Elizabeth had decided years ago. They were to cover up all he meant to hide—new hurts, old wounds, the real Paul Dudley. Only once had she ever seen him show pain. When his favorite dog, always with him, had been

hit by a truck, he’d covered his face with his hands when he told her. But the minute she’d touched him, ready to cry too, he’d stiffened. “I’ll have to get another one,” he’d said, more to himself than to her. And right away he had. Another liver-spotted pointer.

“You’re turning down a good way of life, though,”her mother had said a little sadly, when she didn’t take the ring. It had been his mother’s diamond. He’d also inherited a large tract of land and a house in the country.

Among Elizabeth’s reasons was one she’d never mentioned, for fear that it might sound trivial. He had simply made her nervous. Wherever they’d gone, to concerts, plays, movies, he hadn’t been able to sit still and listen but had had to look around and whisper, start conversations, pick up dropped programs. Go for more popcorn. He had rummaged through his hair, fiddled wdth his tie, jiggled keys in his pocket, until it had been all she could do not to say, “Stop that or I’ll scream!”

He hadn’t seemed surprised when she told him. Subdued at first, he had rallied and joked as he went out the door. But he’d cut her out of his life from then on and ignored all her efforts to be friendly. Not until both were married had he even stopped on the street to say hello.

Back home now in her clean, orderly kitchen, Elizabeth has put away groceries and stored the empty bags. Without delay she has subtracted the checks she wrote downtown. Attention to detail has become compulsive with her. It is all that holds her together, she thinks.

JUST BEFORE DAYLIGHT-SAVINGS DARK PAUL and Louise drive up in a white station wagon. Paul is wearing a fresh short-sleeved shirt, the tops of its sleeves still pressed together like uncut pages in a book. In one hand he carries a Bible as worn as a wallet.

Louise, in her late forties like Elizabeth, is small and blonde. Abandoned first by a father who’d left home, then by a mother his leaving had destroyed, she’d been brought up by worn-out grandparents. Her eyes are like those of an unspoiled pet, waiting for a sign to be friendly.

When Elizabeth asks if they’d like something cool to drink, now or later, they laugh. It’s a long-standing joke in Wakefield. “Mr. Paul don’t drink nothing but sweetmilk,” a worker on his place said years ago.

“Now would be nice,”he says, with his happy new smile.

Elizabeth leads the way to a table in her kitchen, a large light room with one end for dining. The table, of white wood with an airy glass top, overlooks her back lawn. While she fills goblets with tea and ice, Paul gazes out the window, humming to himself, drumming on the glass top. Louise admires the marigolds, snapdragons, and petunias in bloom. Her own dowers have been neglected this year, she says. Elizabeth brings out a pound cake still warm from the oven.

“Let’s bless it,”Paul says, when they’re ready.

He holds out one hand to her and the other to Louise. His hand is trembling and so warm it feels feverish. Because of her?, Elizabeth can’t help thinking. No, everyone knows he’s been happy with his wife. Louise’s hand is cool and steady.

He bows his head. “Lord, we thank You for this opportunity to witness in Your name. We know that You alone can comfort our friend in her sorrow. Bring her, we pray, to the knowledge of Your saving grace and give her Your peace, which passes understanding. We ask it for Your sake and in Your name.”

He smiles a benediction, and Elizabeth cuts the cake.

“The reason we’re here, Elizabeth"—he ignores the tea and cake before him—“is that my heart went out to you this morning at the bank. You can’t give John up, and it’s tearing you apart.”

He’s right, she thinks. She can’t give John up and she ft torn apart, after almost a year.

“We have the cure for broken hearts,” he says, as if stating a fact.

Louise takes a bite of cake, but when Paul doesn’t, she puts down her fork. On her left hand, guarded by her wedding band, is a ring that Elizabeth has seen before.

“I have something to ask you, Elizabeth.”He looks away tactfully. “Are you saved?”

“I’m afraid not, Paul,”she says, in a moment. “What happened to John did something to my faith. John didn’t deserve all that suffering, or to die in his prime. I can’t seem to accept it.”

“Well, that’s natural. Understandable. I was rebellious myself at one time.”

Strange, she thinks. She didn’t remember him as being religious at all. On the contrary, he’d worked all day Sunday on a tractor while everyone else went to church.

“But I had an encounter with Jesus Christ that changed my life,” he continues. “I kept praying, with all my heart, and He finally came to me. His presence was as real as yours is now. You have to really want Him, though. Most people have to hit rock bottom, the way I did, before they do. You have to be down so low you say, ‘Lord, I can’t make it on my own. You’ll have to help me. You take over!’ ”

When was that? She tries to think. Things had gone so well for him, it seemed. He had all he’d ever wanted out of life—all he’d wanted when they were dating, at least—a big family, and to live on his land. He’d been an only child whose parents had died young. Louise had been orphaned too, in a way. So they’d had a child every year or two before they quit, a station wagon full of healthy, suntanned children. All driving themselves by now, Elizabeth had noticed.

As for herself, rock bottom was back in that hospital room with John, sitting in a chair by his bed. Six months maybe, a year at the most, they’d just told her in the hall. She’d held his hand until the Demerol took effect and his hand had gone limp in hers. Then she’d leaned her head on the bed beside him and prayed, with all her heart. From hospital room to hospital room she had prayed, and at home in between.

“I’ve said that too, Paul, many times. I prayed, and nothing happened. Why would He come to you and not me?”

“Because you were letting something stand in your way, my dear.”His smile is back, full force. “For Him to come in, you have to get rid of self—first of all your selfwill! ‘Not my will but Thine be done,’ He said on the cross.”

He breaks off, turns to the tea and cake before him. With the first bite of cake he shuts his eyes. A blissful smile spreads over his face.

“Umh, umh!” He winks at Louise. “How about this pound cake, Mama!”

LATE THE NEXT AFTERNOON ELIZABETH IS watering flowers in her back yard. Before, she grew flowers to bring in the house, zinnias for pottery pitchers, bulbs for clear glass vases. Now she grows them for themselves, and seldom cuts them. She has a new, irrational notion that scissors hurt the stems. After what she’s seen of pain, she wants to hurt nothing that lives.

From where she stands with the hose, she watches a small red car turn into her driveway. In front of the house two young girls in sundresses get out.

“Mrs. North?” the first girl says, when Elizabeth comes up to meet them. “You probably don’t remember me, but I’m Beth Woodall, and this is Cindy Lewis. We’re from Workers of the Vineyard.”

Beth is blonde and pretty—a young Louise, Elizabeth thinks. Her smiles spin off like bubbles, but Cindy has a limp and something is wrong with one arm. Elizabeth doesn’t look at it directly.

“What can I do for you girls?”

“Oh, we just came to see you,”Beth says. “Paul and Louise thought we might cheer you up.”

In the living room Beth is the speaker. “We all knew your husband from the paper, Mrs. North. He was wonderful! My dad read every line he ever wrote, and says this town is lost without him.”She pushes back her hair, anchors it behind one ear. Her nails, overlong, pale as seashells, seem to lag behind her fingers. “We’ve all been praying for you.”

The hose has made a wet spot on the front of Elizabeth’s skirt. To avoid looking up, she rubs it with her hand.

“I know how you feel, though,” Beth says quickly. “Remember Billy Moseley, who was killed in that wreck last year? He was my boyfriend since grammar school, and we’d have gotten married someday, if he’d lived. We were just always . . . together.” Her eyes fill up with tears.

Elizabeth remembers Billy, handsome, polite. A star athlete killed by a drunk driver. She feels a deep stir of sympathy, but like everything painful since John died, it freezes before it can surface. Erozen, it seems packed in her chest, as in the top of a refrigerator so full the door will hardly shut. She looks back at Beth with dry, guilty eyes.

“Well, Em all right now,” Beth says. “But I thought for a while it would kill me. I didn’t want to live without Billy, until I met the people at The Vineyard. They made me see it was God’s will for him to die and me to live and serve the Lord. Now I know Billy’s waiting for me, and it’s not as bad as it was.” She shrugs. “I try to help Billy’s mother, but she won’t turn it over to the Lord.”

The room is grow ing dark. Elizabeth gets up to turn on more lights, which cast a roseate glow on their faces, hands, feet in open sandals. “Would you girls like a Coke?”

“Yes, ma’am.” Beth blinks her eyes dry. “A Coke would be nice.”

They follow Elizabeth to the kitchen, where she pours Coca-Cola into glasses filled with ice cubes.

“You must get lonesome here by yourself,” Cindy says, looking around. “Are your children away from home or something?”

“I don’t have children, Cindy.” Elizabeth hands her a glass and a paper napkin. “My husband and I wanted a family but couldn’t have one. All we had was each other.”

“Ah!” Beth says quickly. “WE’ll be your children, then. Won’t we, Cindy?”

T IS SEVEN O’CLOCK IN THE MORNING AND EI.IZabeth is drinking coffee, staring dejectedly out the kitchen window. During the night she had a dream about John. He was alive, not dead. John had been editor-publisher of the Wakefield Sun, the town’s weekly paper, had written most of the copy himself. In the dream he and Elizabeth were in bed for the night.

John had liked to work in bed and she had liked to read beside him, so they’d gone to bed early as a rule. Propped up on pillows, he had worked on editorials, for which he’d been known throughout the state. At times, though, he had put aside his clipboard and taken off his glasses. His eyes, blue-gray and rugged, like a tweed jacket he’d worn so many winters, would take on a look that made the book fall from her hand and later, sometimes, onto the floor.

In the dream, as he looked at her, the phone by their bed rang. He’d forgotten a meeting, he told her, out of bed at once. He had to get down there. It had already started, a meeting he was to cover for the paper. He hurried into clothes but stopped at the bedroom door.

“I’ll be right back,” he said, like a mischievous boy.

But he wasn’t back and never would be, she was reminded, wide awake. In the dark she checked the space beside her w ith her hand to be sure, and her grief seemed new again, stronger than ever, reinforced by time. If only she could cry, she thought, the way most widows do! Cry, people told her, over and over, but she couldn’t. That part of her seemed to freeze up and go numb every time.

She woke from the dream at two o’clock in the morning, and hasn’t slept since. Now she’s glad to be up with something to do, even if it’s only an appointment with her lawyer. She has sold John’s business but kept the building, and the legalities are not yet over. She wants to be on time, is always on time. It is part of her fixation on details, as if each thing attended to were somehow on a list that if completed could bring back meaning to her life.

In the fall she will go back to teaching school, but her heart is not in it as before. For twenty years she was John’s wife first of all, from deadline to deadline, through praise, blame, long stretches of indifference. He couldn’t have done it without her, he’d said, with each award and honor he’d been given. Now no other role seems right for her. which is her problem, she’s thinking as the front doorbell rings.

Louise is there in a fresh summer dress, her clean hair shining in the sun. She smells of something lightly floral.

“May I come in?”

Still in a nightgown and robe, aware of the glazed-over look in her eyes, Elizabeth steps back, opens the door wide. “How about a cup of coffee?” she says, forcing herself to smile in return.

At the white table Louise takes the place she had before. “I won’t stay long,” she says.

Elizabeth puts on a new pot of coffee, gets out a cup and saucer and a cloth napkin. Outside all is quiet. Stores and offices won’t open until nine, so why is Louise in town at this hour?

“I was praying for you,” she says, as if in answer. “But the Lord told me to come and see you instead.”

Elizabeth turns to look at her. “God told you?”

Their eyes meet. Louise nods.

“He wanted you to know that He loves you, that’s all. He wanted me to bring you His love.” Her face turns a sudden bright pink, which deepens and spreads.

At a loss, Elizabeth goes for the coffee pot, pours a cup for Louise and one for herself. She has learned to drink hers black, but Louise adds milk and sugar. Both wait for the coffee to cool.

“Come with us to The Vineyard next time, Elizabeth,” Louise says, all at once.

This is what she really came for, Elizabeth thinks, and it’s a plea, as from someone safe on the bank to a swimmer having trouble in the water.

“It could save your life!” Louise says.

HE VINEYARD MEETING PLACE IS A NARROW, shotgun-style house of the 1890s, last used as a dentist’s office. It has one large room in front and two small rooms in back. Having been welcomed and shown around, Elizabeth stands against the wall of the front room with Paul and Louise. The group is smaller than she expected, and not all Presbyterian. Some people are from other churches as well, all smiling and excited.

Everything revolves around Steve, a young man in jeans who looks like a slight blonde Jesus. When Elizabeth is introduced, he looks deep into her eyes.

“Elizabeth,” he says, as if he knows her already. “We were hoping you’d come. Welcome to The Vineyard!”

To her surprise, he says no more and moves on, but she has felt his power like the heat from a stove. She finds herself following him around the room with her eyes, wanting to know what he says to other people. Like a salesman sure of his product, he puts on no pressure.

The night is hot and windows are open, but no breeze comes through. Rotary fans monotonously sweep away the heat in front of them, in vain. Someone brings in a pitcher of Kool-Aid, which is passed around in paper cups.

“Okay, people.” Steve holds up his cup, raises his voice for attention. “Let’s have a song.”

Everyone takes a seat on the floor, in a ring shaped by the long, narrow room. A masculine girl with short dark hair stands up. She tests one key, then another, low in her throat, before leading off. “We are one in the Spirit, we are one in the Lord ...”

Most of the singers are young, in shorts or jeans, but some are middle-aged or older. Of the latter, the majority are single women and widows like Elizabeth. The young people sit with folded legs, leaning comfortably forward, and the men draw up one leg or the other. But the women, in pantsuits or sleeveless dresses, sit up straight, like paper dolls bent in the middle.

The song gains momentum for the chorus, which ends, “Yes, they’ll know—oh, we are Christians bv our love!”

“All right,” Steve says. “Time to come to our Lord in prayer.”

Someone scrambles up to turn off the light switch while someone else lights a candle on the Kool-Aid table. In the semi-darkness Steve reaches out to his neighbor on each side, and a chain of hands is quickly formed.

Elizabeth, without a hand to hold in her new single life, is glad to link in. She could be joining the human race again, she thinks, smiling at the young woman on her left and Paul on her right. Paul’s hand no longer trembles but feels as it did in high school—not thrilling but dependable, something to count on.

The room is suddenly hushed. “For the benefit of our visitor,” Steve says, “we begin with sentence prayers around the circle, opening our hearts and minds to God.” He bows his head. “We thank You again, Heavenly Father, for the privilege of being here. Guide us, we pray, in all we say and do, that it may be for the extension of Your kingdom. Thank You as always for each other but above all for Your blessed son, Jesus, who is with us tonight, here in this circle.”

Oh, no, Elizabeth thinks. I can’t do this. How did I ever get here? She’s never prayed out loud in her life except in unison.

But a thin boy on Steve’s left is already speaking. “You turned me around. Lord. Before You, all I lived for was that bottle. I didn’t think about nobody but myself. . .”

Eagerly, one after the other, they testify, confess, ask help in bringing others to Jesus as Lord and Savior. They speak of the devil as if he’s someone in town, a troublemaker they can’t avoid.

A check-out girl from the supermarket starts to cry and can’t stop. From around the circle come murmurs of “God bless you” and “We love you,” until her weeping begins to subside.

“My heart’s too full tonight,”the girl sobs at last. “I have to pass.”

The room begins to feel crowded and close. On each side Elizabeth’s hands are gripped tighter. The back of her blouse is sticking to her skin.

“Praise God!” a man cries out in the middle of someone’s prayer.

“Help me. Lord,” a woman whimpers.

A teenage boy starts to pray, his words eerily unintelligible. Tongues?, Elizabeth wonders, electrified. They do it here, she’s heard. But something nasal in his voice gives the clue, and she has a wild impulse to laugh. He’s not speaking in tongues but is tongue-tied from a cleft palate.

Too soon Elizabeth hears Paul’s voice beside her, charged with emotion. He’s praying about the sin of pridein his life, but she can’t pay attention because she will be next. I leavy, galloping hoofbeats seem to have taken the place of her heart.

When he’s through, she says nothing. She would like to say ”I pass,”or something, anything, but is unable to decide on, much less utter, a word. Her hands are wet with cold perspiration. She tries to withdraw them, but Paul on one side and the young woman on the other hold on tight. Fans hum back and forth as her silence stretches out.

At last someone starts to pray out of turn, and the circle is mended. As the prayers move back to Steve, Elizabeth gives a sigh of relief and tries to ease her position on the floor without being obvious. Steve gives a new directive.

“We’ll now lift up to God those with special needs tonight.” He allows them a moment to think. “I lift up Jane, our choir director, in the medical center for tests and diagnosis. Her tests begin in the morning.”

They pray in silence for Jane, for someone in the midst of divorce, for a man who’s lost his job. An unnamed friend with an unidentified problem is presented.

Louise clears her throat for attention, and then hesitates before speaking out. When she does, her voice is girlish and sweet, as usual.

“I lift up Elizabeth,” she says.

LIZABETH HAS AVOIDED THE TELEPHONE ALL day, though she’s heard it ring many times. T he weather is cloudy and cool, so she has spent the morning outside, weeding, hoeing, raking, and has come to one decision. She will not see the soul-savers today.

Tomorrow, perhaps, she can face them. Today she will do anything not to. They were holding her up not for her but for them, she believes. They refuse to look on the dark side of reality, and they want her to blink it away too. If she can smile before loss, grief, and death, so can they. They’re like children in a fairy tale, singing songs, holding hands. Never mind the dark wood, wolves, and witches. Or birds that cat up the breadcrumbs.

During lunch she takes the phone off the hook, eats in a hurry, and goes back out with magazines and a book. For supper she will go to Breck’s for barbecue and visit with whoever’s there. When she comes back, the day will be over. “One day at a time” is the new widow’s motto.

She is drying off from a shower when the front doorbell rings. She doesn’t hurry, even when it rings again and someone’s finger stays on the buzzer. The third time, she closes the bathroom door carefully, little by little, so as not to be heard. Gingerly, as if it might shock her, she flips off the light switch.

Soon there is knocking on the back door, repeated several times. She can hear voices but not words. When she continues to do nothing, hardly breathing for fear they will somehow know or divine that she’s there, the knocking stops and the voices, along with retreating footsteps, fade away. Through a sneaked-back window curtain she can see the small red car moving off.

Suddenly, in her mind’s eye, she can also see herself, as from a distance, towel clutched like a fig leaf, hiding from a band of Christians out to save her soul!

For the first time in her widowhood she laughs when she’s alone. It happens before she knows it, like a hiccup or a sneeze. With abandon, such as she’d thought lost to her forever, she draws out the laugh as long as possible, winding up with a chuckle.

Smiling for a change, as if playing a game, she dresses in a hurry and picks up her purse. She’s about to walk out the back door when the front doorbell rings.

This time, keys still in hand, she goes at once to open her front door.

Beth and Cindy, plus Steve and two policemen, stare back at her. The policemen are in uniform, dark blue pants and lighter blue shirts, with badges, and insignia, and guns on their belts. Obviously they’ve been deciding how to get into the house without a key.

For a moment no one speaks. Then Beth, wide-eyed, bursts out, “You scared us to death, Mrs. North! We thought you had passed out or something. We knew you were in there because of vour car.”

“I didn’t feel like seeing anyone today.” Elizabeth’s voice is calm and level. Where did it come from, she thinks, that unruffled voice? She should be mad or upset, and she’s not.

“Sorry to bother you, Mrs. North,” the older policeman says. “Your friends here were worried.”

And suddenly, out of the blue, Elizabeth is suffused with what seems pure benevolence. For a split second, and for no reason, she is sure that everything is overall right in the world. And not just for her but for everyone, including the dead.

“No bother,” she says, half dazed, to the policeman. “I thank you.”

Steve has said nothing. His eyes are not innocent like Beth’s and Cindy’s. They are the eyes of a true believer, blessed or cursed with certainty. His focus has been steadily on her, bur now it breaks away.

“Let’s go, people,” he says lightly. “God bless you, Elizabeth. Glad you’re okay.”

^ LIZABETH HAS SLEPT ALL NIGHT, FOR ONCE. As she sits down to cereal and coffee, she is sure of one thing. She has to start what everyone tells her must be “a whole new life" / without John, and she has to do it now. Though still frozen and numb inside, she has found that she can at least laugh. And she has experienced, however Heetingly, what must have been grace.

When she hears a car door slam out front—not once but twice—she gets up without waiting for anyone to ring or knock. It is Paul and Louise, for the first time not smiling. Paul has on khaki work clothes. Louise has brushed her hair on top, but underneath sleep tangles show.

On the living-room sofa they sit leaning forward. Paul rocks one knee from side to side, making his whole body shake from the tension locked inside him.

“They should have come to us instead of going to the police,” he says at once. “They just weren’t thinking.”

“No, it was my fault,” Elizabeth says. “I should have gone to the door.”

“Why didn’t you?” Louise wants to know.

“Well ...” She looks down, falls silent.

“Our meeting upset you?” Paul asks in a moment.

Elizabeth’s housecoat is old and too short. She starts checking the snaps down the front. They catch her like this every time, she thinks. Why can’t they call, like everyone else, before they come?

“Level with us, honey,” he says. “We’re your friends. What upset you so much?”

Except for the sound of her fingertips on the cloth, the room is utterly quiet.

“We need to pray about this,” Paul says. “Let’s pray

“No!” Elizabeth is on her feet without meaning to be. “No, Paul. I can’t, I’m sorry.” She’s out of breath, as from running. “This has got to stop! I can’t be a Worker of the Vineyard. You’re wasting your time on me. You’ll have to find somebody else.”

He says nothing for so long that a countdown seems to start up inside her. But then he stands up slowly, followed by Louise. At the door, with his hand on the knob, he turns to face her.

“Well, Elizabeth,” he says, “I guess it’s time to say good-bye.”

Her heart slows down as if brakes had been applied. The beats become heavy, far apart. She can feel them in her ears, close to her brain.

“I’m sorry, Paul!” she says quickly. Before his unforgiving eyes she says it again, as if holding out a gift she knows to be inadequate. “I’m sorry!”

But this time he has no joke or smile. Without a word he takes Louise by the arm and they turn to go.

She watches them walk to the car side by side, not touching. Paul opens the door for Louise, shuts her safely in, and gets behind the wheel. The station wagon moves out of sight down the driveway.

Elizabeth’s cereal is soggy, her coffee cold. She pushes it all away, props her elbows on the table, and buries her face in her hands. Suddenly, as from a thaw long overdue, she’s crying. Sobs shake her shoulders. Tears roll down her cheeks, seep through her fingers, and run down her wrist. One drop falls on the glass top and sparkles like a jewel in the morning sunlight.