m_topn picture
Atlantic Monthly Sidebar

Return to this issue's Table of Contents.

M A Y  1 9 9 9

(The online version of this story appears in three parts. Click here to go to part one. Click here to go to part two.)

WHEN she got to the apartment, the other sisters were watching a video of W. C. Fields's My Little Chickadee. She was glad to take her shoes off, settle on the couch, and join the laughter -- much too raucous, they said happily, for a bunch of nuns. It was three o'clock. At four she'd have to get ready for dinner, and at four-thirty she'd leave. But she had time to watch the movie. Marlene had made chocolate-chip cookies, and Philida was putting coffee Häagen-Dazs into their blue-and-white ice-cream bowls.

"Now, this is heaven," Rocky said. "Forget eternal light and visions of unending bliss. This is it."

"Ten years in purgatory for blasphemy," Marlene said.

"If only this weren't a smoke-free zone," Joan said.

"If only you weren't trying to kill yourself," Rocky said.

"All right, all right, I'm sorry I brought it up," Joan said. She thought about how Fields's cruelty was delightful, and wondered what it had to do with Gospel generosity, and decided that it had everything and nothing to do with it and she should just relax. She wondered what W. C. Fields would do with Gerard. He certainly wouldn't be going to Gallagher's with him. Or maybe he would. For the steak and the Scotch.

At four-thirty the phone rang. It was Steve, from his car, or from the highway beside his car. He was waiting for a tow truck. He wasn't going to be able to get to the city by five. They'd have to go on without him; he'd be there as soon as he could.

"Don't do this to me, Steve," Joan said.

"I'm not doing it. It's in the hands of God, Sister."

"God has nothing to do with it. Just get here. Can't one of your rich friends lend you a car?"

"I'm in the middle of the highway. I have to deal with this first."

"Just hurry. Just go as fast as you can."

"Aye, aye, sir," he said, and clicked off.

When she told the other nuns what had happened, Philida was suspicious. "I'll bet he's sitting in someone's rumpus room and just said his car broke down."

"Steve wouldn't lie."

"Steve takes care of Steve."

"And a lot of other people, too. You can't say he's not generous, Philida."

"When it's easy for him."

"I'm just not going to think about it," Joan said, angry at Philida for making things more difficult. "It's impossible enough as it is. Will one of you come with me? Steve'll pay for it. Or probably no one will pay. The people who run Gallagher's are in the parish; Steve probably baptized all their kids."

"Joan, if you had a choice between dinner with Gerard and watching The African Queen and ordering in Thai food, which would you choose?" Marlene asked.

"In solidarity with a sister, I'd go to Gallagher's."

"Solidarity is one thing; being out of your mind is another. Offer it up, for the poor souls," Rocky said.

"This is community life? This is my support network?"

"We'll keep the movie out for an extra day, so you can see it tomorrow. The community will pay the late fee."

"That's Christian charity at its most heroic."

"We gave up the virgin-martyr thing years ago, Joan. Hadn't you heard?"

She had what she thought was a brilliant idea. She phoned Gerard and explained what had happened to Steve, and asked if he'd like to put off the dinner until another day, when Steve could join them.

"But then it wouldn't be my anniversary," he said.

"Well, it could still be a celebration."

"This is the day of my anniversary," he said. "No other day will be that."

She gave up. People's wanting something so much often wore her down. She very rarely wanted anything for herself enough to try to force someone into giving it to her. Gerard wanted this, and like a lot of people who had very little else in or on their minds, he had plenty of room for a stubborn will to grow in.

"Great, then I'll meet you at Gallagher's," she said. She couldn't remember when the prospect of anything had made her so sick at heart.

SLABS of beef hung from hooks in the restaurant window. On the pine-paneled walls, behind the red-leather booths, were pictures of New York sporting, political, religious, and show-business figures from the 1890s to the 1950s. Diamond Jim Brady, Fiorello La Guardia, Jack Dempsey, Yogi Berra. Stiff-looking monsignors beside men in fedoras and coats with collars made of beaver or perhaps mink. An age of easy, thoughtless prosperity, a slightly outlaw age, of patronage and conquest and last-minute saves from on high. She thought how odd it was that she liked this place so much, since it had nothing to do with the way she had always lived her life -- was the opposite of the way she had lived her life. Yet she didn't feel out of place here; she felt welcomed, as if they had made an exception for her, and she liked the feeling, as she liked the large hunks of bloody meat and the home-fried potatoes and the creamed spinach, more than the Thai food the sisters would be eating, more than the cookies they would devour while they watched the film.

right "So, Gerard, it's a great day for you," she said with what she hoped he wouldn't notice was a desperate overbrightness, masking her terror at the fact that after she said this, she would have nothing to say.

"I thank God every day of my life. I count my blessings. Except I have to say I was a little disappointed. None of the old students came. I thought they'd come. The celebration was mentioned in the parish bulletin."

"Oh, Gerard, most of the old students don't live in the parish anymore. And besides, you know how busy people are."

"Still, you'd think at least one of them."

"I'm sure they were at the mass. You know how shy people are to come to anything after mass. Catholics simply weren't brought up to do it."

"I was surprised, though."

He wouldn't let it go. She felt, at the same time, hideously sorry for him and angry that he wouldn't accept the ways out she offered him. Did he have any idea how horribly he had failed as a teacher? Was today the first news of it for him? If it was, her mixture of pity and dislike was even stronger, though equal in its blend.

"I'm surprised Father Steve went off to the baptism. You'd think he could have found a substitute."

"I think it was a very good friend."

"He's known me for years."

"Well, you know Steve, he always thinks he can do everything. I'm sure he'll show up. You know his way of pulling things off in the end."

"It's a very important day to me."

"Of course it is, Gerard, of course."

"It was a great blessing, my being called to the deaconate."

Yes, she wanted to say, a job with so little to it that you couldn't screw it up.

"My mother was very upset when I was sent home from the sem. I just couldn't cut it. The pressure was very tough. I think these days they'd say I had a nervous breakdown."

Suddenly she wondered if she had to think of him in a new way, as someone with an illness rather than with a series of bad habits. She didn't know which she preferred, which was more hopeless, which less difficult to bear.

"My mother wanted a son as a priest more than anything. All those years being a housekeeper in the rectory. I really disappointed her. I just couldn't cut it."

"I'm sure you were a great comfort to her in her last days."

His dull eyes brightened. "Do you think that's it? Do you think it's the will of God? That I couldn't cut it at the sem because if I had been a priest, she would have been alone in her last illness?"

"I've heard you were very devoted to her."

"I took care of her for fifteen years. It was a privilege. It was a very special grace."

"Well, then, you see," Joan said, not knowing what she meant at all.

"Still, I was a big disappointment to her. There was no getting around that. And I was disappointed today, that so few people came. Next to my investiture, it was the most important day of my life."

Gerard began to cry. The waiter hovered behind them and then disappeared. Joan wondered what on earth people in the restaurant imagined was going on between them, who people thought they might be to each other -- this unfortunate-looking old man and the underdressed old maid across from him.

She tried to give her attention to him, not to think of the waiter or the other diners, not to be mortified at the sight of this man -- he was an old man, really -- crying, trying to light a cigarette.

"Sometimes I just don't know what it all means."

A wave of anger rose up in her. Anger toward Gerard and toward the institution of the Catholic Church. What was it all worth, the piety, the devotion, if it left him crying, struggling helplessly over an ashtray? Seeing life as meaningless. At least it should have provided him with sustenance. He had missed the whole point; he had taken only the stale, unnourishing broken crusts and missed the banquet. She was angry at him for having missed the whole point of Jesus and the Gospels, when he had been surrounded by them every day of his life, and angry at the Church for having done nothing to move him.

"Surely, Gerard, you know that you are greatly beloved."

He stopped crying and shook his head like a dog who had been fighting and had had a bucket of cold water thrown on him.

"I appreciate that, Sister. I appreciate that very much. That's why even Father's not showing up is the will of God, I think. I always thought that of all of them, you were the one who really cared about me."

She felt sick and helpless. How could she say to him, I wasn't talking about me, I was talking about God. He was looking down at the tablecloth; his shoulders were relaxed, not hunched and knotted as usual. He lifted his head and gave her a truly happy smile.

"You see, you were the only one who cared enough to notice what I was going through. Everybody just let me go on teaching, doing a terrible job, giving me class after class to screw up. Do you think I liked it in there? I was just afraid of losing my job. It's all I have, coming to the school."

"There's the deaconate -- you could make something of that."

"I'm not very good with people," he said. "But you figured out what I was good at. You looked at what I was really like. You saw that I had a talent for computers. You paid attention. That's what caring really means. You were the only one since my mother who cared enough to tell me I had to improve. Everybody else thought I was hopeless. They didn't want to look at me, just kept me around so I wouldn't be on their conscience. You really looked, and you found my gift."

Turning computer switches on and off? she wanted to say. Dusting keyboards? Turning out the lights and locking the door?

"Now I know I have a real place, a place where I'm needed, and it's all thanks to you. That's the kind of thing Jesus was talking about."

Oh, no, Gerard, she wanted to say, oh, no, you're as wrong as you can be. Jesus was talking about love, an active love that fills the soul and lightens it, that draws people to each other with the warmth of the spirit, that makes them able to be with each other as a brother is with a sister or a mother with her child. Oh, no, Gerard, I do not love you. You are a person I could never love. Never, never, will I feel anything for you when I see you but a wish to flee from your presence. She prayed: Let me stay at the table. Let me feel happy that I made Gerard happy. Let me not hate him for his foolishness, his misunderstanding, his grotesque misinterpretation of me and the whole world. She prayed to be able to master the impulse to flee.

But she could not.

"Excuse me," she said, and ran into the ladies' room. In the mirror her eyes looked dead and cold to her. She believed what she had said to Gerard, that all human beings were, by virtue of their being human, greatly beloved. But the face she saw in the mirror did not look as if it had ever been beloved, or could ever love.

She looked in the mirror and prayed for strength -- not to make herself love Gerard but to sit at the table with him. Only that.

He believed that she loved him. He believed that she had his interest at heart, when all she cared about was keeping him from doing damage to her children, whom she did, truly, love. Only Steve had prevented her from throwing him out on the street. Steve, who, she was more sure than ever now, was relaxing in Westchester.

The poor you always have with you. She heard the words of Jesus in her head. And she knew that she would always have Gerard. He was poorer than Estrelita Dominguez, thirteen years old and three months' pregnant, or LaTrobe Sandford, who might be in jail this time next year.

The poor you always have with you. She thought of Magdalene and her tears, of the richness of the jar's surface and the overwhelming scent of the ointment -- nardshe remembered it's being called -- and the ripples of the flowing hair. She saw her own dry countenance in the greenish bathroom mirror. She combed her hair and smoothed her skirt down over her narrow hips. She returned to Gerard, who had been brought a Scotch and soda by the waiter.

"On the house," Gerard said. "I told him we were celebrating my anniversary."

"And you, Sister," the waiter said. "What can we give you? A ginger ale?"

"Just water, please," she said. "A lot of ice."

The waiter was an Irishman; he'd be scandalized by a nun's ordering Scotch. She didn't want to disappoint him.

The online version of this story appears in three parts. Click here to go to part one. Click here to go to part two.

Mary Gordon is a professor of English at Barnard College and the author of many books, including The Company of Women (1981), Temporary Shelter (1987), and The Shadow Man (1996), a memoir. A collection of her essays, Seeing Through Places, will be published next year.

Illustrations by Gérard DuBois

Copyright © 1999 by The Atlantic Monthly Company. All rights reserved.
The Atlantic Monthly; May 1999; The Deacon; Volume 283, No. 5; pages 94 - 106.

m_nv_cv picture m_nv_un picture m_nv_am picture m_nv_pr picture m_nv_as picture m_nv_se picture