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Gideon’s River, two chapters

November 7, 2010

Chapter One: Spring Flood

Rosalie and Fred stood on the bridge looking up river, enchanted by the pattern of swells and troughs as the mass of water surged heavily westward in a mad plunge toward Binghamton.  There, having gathered other waters, the wide Susquehanna would bend south through Pennsylvania and empty at last into the Chesapeake Bay.  It was a river neither joyful nor sad, Rosalie thought, and, unlike the sentient beings standing above it, enviably without remorse.

“Let’s not take it home,” Fred said.  “Wouldn’t fit in the bathtub.”

Rosalie leaned closer, comfortable in her carpenter husband’s humor, which was as reliable as the walls of the houses he built.  “Doesn’t fit in our minds either.  But it’s nice to stand here.  It’s tranquil on the bridge, as if time has stopped and we will stand always like this, safe above the flood.  We could bring the kids here with perfect safety.”

“Bridges are one of man’s better ideas,” Fred said, patting the concrete balustrade.

She turned half toward him.  “I’m trying to imagine swimming to shore.  I’d never make it.  That water has its own agenda.”

Fred wrapped her close, his chin on her head.  “Even a motor boat would be hard put to do anything but go downriver.”

“Good first rehearsal tonight.  I like you as Bluebeard.”

“I’ve always wanted to play a villain.  Being good gets old.”

“Rascal.”  She yawned and stared dreamily upriver.

“I like you as Mrs. Bluebeard.  I get to take an ax to you!”

“Oh, you!”

Upriver a large and patchy shape broke free from a half-submerged log and moved quickly along in the current.

“What is that?”  Rosalie drew away to peer over the moonlit water.

Fred followed.  “Looks like a cow.”

“Oh, no.  You don’t suppose it’s one of Jim’s.”

“Could be.  His pasture runs right down to the river.”  As kids, Fred and Jim had helped Jim’s father with the milking.

In no time the cow floated under, its bulky side almost touching the bridge.  It sped away to disappear around a bend.  They looked back the way it had come.  Jim was walking briskly along River Road his mucking boots, huffing and puffing.  Soon he reached the bridge.  “I’m not up to outrunning a river in spring!  Happen to see my prize milker in the drink?”

“Sorry, yes.  She wasn’t struggling.”

“Drowned.”  He looked grim.

“See where that log is?  Seemed like she was caught there and just now broke loose.”

Jim studied the spot where Fred pointed.  He nodded.  “I thought she was up pasture with the others, but she didn’t come in for milking.  A cow likes to be milked.  I knew she was in trouble.  But I had to milk the rest.  Then I called her again.  I looked all along the river.” A cloud sailed over the moon.  Rosalie shivered.  Jim whooshed out a breath.  “That cow would traipse onto the island, what’s left of the bottom pasture.  Liked the new spring grass.  Had to drive her back up yesterday.”  He studied the river.  “Can’t move my fences around every flood that comes!”  He turned and leaned his elbows on the railing, gazing glumly at the hurrying water.

Fred said, “Still rising even now the rain stopped.  That’s what sprung her off the log.”

“Snow melt.”  Jim motioned at the dark hills, keeping his gaze downriver. “Few thousand of my dollars just floated away.  Damn fickle river.  Waters your herd all year and then, just like God, takes your unblemished one.”


Gideon, dark bangs over his eyes, met them at the door.  “You were gone long.”

“Not that long,” Rosalie said.

“You don’t keep your promises!”  He turned and ran upstairs.

Shrugging her coat off and putting it on a peg in the hall, Rosalie turned to Fred.  “What am I going to do with him?”

“I’m sorry I can’t take him to task for talking to you that way.  He’d say you’re not my dad.”


The town of Little Bridge nestled in the hills of rural New York on the north bank of the upper Susquehanna River, the Catskill Mountains rising to the south.  Like other river towns in the area, Little Bridge had started as a lumber camp and grown into a mill and factory town.  The first populations had been Dutch and English and American Indian with a handful of Germans.  Then there were Scots and Irish.  Each brought to the new land some of the culture from the old.  The first churches were Methodist, Congregational, and Presbyterian.  To these were gradually added Lutheran, Baptist, Nazarene, Assembly of God, a Kingdom Hall, a Mormon Tabernacle, a Unitarian Universalist Society, and, at the beginning of the twentieth century, a Jewish Temple.  An Italian neighborhood had grown up, noticeable to the old timers for noise and strength of community.  The Italians built the town’s first Roman Catholic Church.  As other groups moved in—the Chinese who ran the Rainbow Wok, the Greeks who built the Athena Diner—older residents lost track of who worried them.

But they worried.  By word of mouth and by newspaper, they learned of embezzlement and treachery, fist fights and robberies, rapes and divorces.  Some blamed the disintegrating family.  Others tried to improve community life.  They belonged to the Elks, the Lions Club, and the Masons, each a vehicle to forward particular dreams and to preserve special identities.  At the same time, there were numbers of people who had no idea that the Lions Club purchased glasses for indigent children or that Rotary Clubs across the Western Hemisphere had vanquished polio.  By the last decade of the twentieth century, Little Bridge had its civil rights and women’s groups, its aging hippies and those who eschewed mainstream living, including a few brave folks who lived entirely off grid—building earth berm houses, installing solar panels, and hanging clothes to dry.

The more intellectually adventurous found a spiritual home at the Little Bridge Free Will Church where no subject was barred from discussion.  Yet talk failed to answer human trouble.  Some had begun to think only death would tell.  Yet, like intrepid dogs, they sniffed along at clues.  Lately, as a way to explore truths that did not come clear in even the best of sermons, this marginal church had begun to put on plays.  The current project, based on an ancient version of the fairy tale “Bluebeard,” used no script.  As they rehearsed, the director and actors tried different “stories,” each portraying an aspect of a shifting message.  The minister hoped this exercise would lead finally to a glimpse behind the social curtain.  Rosalie hoped with particular ardor that she would gain insight into what was bothering her feisty son Gideon.


Saturday night found the members of the cast and crew struggling through yet another downpour, windshield wipers at max, umbrellas pushed again the driving rain as folks entered the church stamping their feet.  There had been rain all week following the drowning of the cow.  The brooks in the lesser valleys gushed along, water landing on drenched ground and rushing to join the already swollen brooks and rivers.   Friday, after five home visits—ten trips from car to home and home to car—a soggy Rosalie had reported in at the county social work offices, thinking of a hot shower and dry clothes.  Saturday she insisted on opening the windows to let in air, damp as it was.  She placed towels on the window sills while she swept and mopped.  After supper Fred announced, “Paper says been fifty years since a flood like this.”  Rosalie was bringing plates to the sink and sending the children to get ready for bed.  When Hannah went to pick up the phone, Rosalie said, “You can call Chelsea after you wash your face and brush your teeth and put on your pajamas.  Gideon’s going to take care of you while we’re at rehearsal.”

“It’s not fair,” Hannah moaned.  “How come Josh always gets to have Andrew over and I don’t get to have Chelsea?”

Rosalie wanted to push everything and everyone into place without delay.  She didn’t want to be late for rehearsal.  But she recognized a slow-down-and-be-there-moment.  Tossing the dishcloth on the table, she put a hand on Hannah’s arm.  “You feeling put upon?”

“Why can’t Chelsea come over?”

“Honey, I need you to be part of the crew tonight.  Andrew needs to be here because his dad is in the rehearsal.  If you had company, too, Gideon would have four kids to watch all by himself.  But if you don’t have a friend over, you can be Gideon’s helper and keep the little boys happy.  How about we have Chelsea over Sunday afternoon?”

Hannah brushed back a strand of light hair and straightened her shoulders.  “Okay.”


A new set of velvet curtains, strung wall to wall on a stout line, had turned the minister’s platform into a stage.  Barbara Tinker, a seamstress who spent her days as a bank teller, heard the group’s oohs and ahs at her workmanship.  She sat now beside Pam and Fatima in the second pew and waved at John and Linda across the aisle.  Other members of the cast and supporting crew had taken seats.  And here was Vera, ever the church’s custodian, dusting the backs of the pews.  Barbara spoke into Fatima’s ear.  “Lots of us here.”

Half a head taller than Barbara even when seated, Fatima looked behind them.  “Yeah, Connie came with Roland.  That hunk Bruce is invisible up there in the loft behind the lights.”  She gave Barbara a nudge.

“Trying to make me blush?  There’s nothing between us.”

Fatima smirked.

Kathleen, the minister-turned-play-director, walked from the side and took a seat in the front pew.  The lights dimmed.  The rehearsal began.


On the stage a pile of bones is visible behind a couch.

A woman stands uncertainly inside the door.

Crossing the large room in three strides, Bluebeard grabs her by the collar and swings a cardboard ax into her horror-locked face.  She folds at knees and waist, books sliding noisily from her arms.  She lies in a crumpled heap.


“Cut!”  With a sharp handclap, Kathleen stopped the action.  “Okay.  That’s Hollywood’s Bluebeard.  And there’s truth to it.  But how do we see him in the ancient fairy tale?  How does he move?  What does he do?” At the first rehearsal she had read the story to the cast, how Bluebeard was a gentleman with a fine carriage, was good to his new young wife and gave her the run of the castle and all the keys to its many doors, only asking her not to open one room in the depths of the cellar.  Curiosity won—hers and that of her sisters.  They used the key, opened the forbidden door.  All three screamed, “for in the room was a mire of blood and the blackened bones of corpses were flung about and skulls were stacked in corners like pyramids of apples.”

Kathleen said, “Keep him modern, but give me that Bluebeard.”

Fred and Rosalie nodded and took their places.



Bluebeard’s wife comes cautiously into the room, books on her arms, and hangs her coat on a hook.  Bluebeard rolls up from his chair, face contorted.

“Woman, what the hell do you think you’re doing coming in at this hour?”

“I had…class.  I told you…I had…accounting class.”  Her voice rises on the last two words.

He strides over. “No wife of mine is going to work for a living!”  He knocks the books from her arms, scattering them across the floor.


“Cut!  Good.  But still Hollywood.  Remember the Estes version.  I don’t know what happened to my copy.  I had it this afternoon.  Anyway, how does Bluebeard behave in the fairy tale?”

From center stage, Rosalie, playing Mrs. Bluebeard, noticed with a shock the absence of Women Who Run with the Wolves from Kathleen’s upheld palm, where the precious book had sat throughout the first rehearsal.  If the minister honored any record of truth, it was this book.

Stepping to the edge of the stage Fred said, “He’s a perfect gentleman.”

Rosalie joined Fred.  “Until the end, after she disobeys.”  Kathleen had chosen Rosalie for the part of Mrs. Bluebeard because of her slight build and the expression of wide-eyed innocence in a face surrounded by thick auburn curls.  “We see the evidence when Mrs. Bluebeard unlocks the forbidden door.”

The rain on the roof increased to a pounding roar.  The rest of the cast were obliged to shout their comments from the pews.  Fatima asked, “Is the wife-killer among us today?”

“No way.  He’d be in jail.”  That was Linda speaking from beside John.

Barbara rolled her eyes, her fringe of dark bangs bouncing.

Pam jumped up, glaring at Linda.  “Girl, have you led a protected life!  He’s among us.  He’s just…careful.”

Roland shouted out, “A young man here in Little Bridge ripped the phone out of the wall so his girlfriend couldn’t talk to anyone but him.  When she ran outside he took after her with a pipe.”

John shouted, “Couple guys tackled him and someone called the cops.  Took three to stop that bozo.”  The rain let up, making John’s voice seemed suddenly loud.

“Shows for every villain there are three white knights.” Fred spoke quietly.  The thought hung in the air around the crew.


Into a dusk made darker by pouring rain, a shadowy figure slipped between the house and lilac bushes, which were as yet a collection of wet sticks reaching into a wetter sky.  Above one bent arm, a squarish object bulged through his jacket.  The figure peered ahead and plunged into the downward slam of the rain.

A second figure followed, hunched against the downpour.

“Wait, Gid!”

The first boy ran on.  Head bowed into the wind and rain, he sprinted down the sidewalk past the church at the end of Apple Street.  He rounded the corner onto Main Street and made for the bridge, the second boy now many paces behind.  Suddenly the first boy heaved something into the river.  The other, catching up, smacked a wet hand against his streaming forehead.  His words came between labored breaths.  “What’d you do that for, Gid?”  Gasping, he leaned both hands on his knees, his question swallowed in the pound of wind and rain.

Gideon’s eyes squeezed shut.  His mouth contorted in a phantom howl silenced by the storm.

“Come on,” Cody said, straightening now and putting an arm over Gideon’s shoulder.  “You gotta get back to the kids, man!”

“I am!”  Gideon choked back tears, straightened his shoulders, and ran back the way he had come.  This time Cody kept up.

Inside, Gideon put his soaked jacket on a peg in the hall and trooped wetly upstairs, Cody close behind.  Joshua and Anthony, absorbed in building a Lego motorcycle garage, paid no more heed to Gideon than did Hannah, on the phone with her friend and soccer buddy Chelsea.  Cody looked into the bathroom, grabbed a towel from the rack, and began wiping the floor and stairs.

“You better change before your parents get home from rehearsal.”

“I know!  Just go before they find you here.”


Vera, having gone out during rehearsal to get some air, had seen the two boys run down Apple Street and toward the Bridge.  She came down the aisle from the doorway, wondering what Gideon had had under his jacket.

“Three white knights for every villain,” Fred said again.

“Fred, the eternal optimist.”  Pam, still standing, waved her hand in dismissal.

Reaching her seat, Vera joined the discussion.  “For every one gone bad, there are a dozen good people.”

Regal in a batik dress, a sweater over lithe shoulders, Fatima slowly shook her head.  “Bluebeard’s a forever story in my family.  If they don’t kill you outright, they smile you dead.  You know, the way the snake smiles at the mouse.”

To Rosalie, Fatima was a living work of art trailed by the spirits of a wounded Africa and a ravaged Native America.  Rosalie herself bore the burden of ancestors who had shot Indians and felled the lumber that built slave ships.  Kathleen provoked thoughts of poverty and the tragic loss of Irish manhood to liquor.  Each lived from a family story, stumbling forward year by year until the years added up to lives and the lives became ages.  Rosalie blinked and came back from this mental excursion.

The storm passed.  The moon lit the stained-glass windows.  Kathleen walked to the side, taking in those on stage and those in the pews.  “You get the point.  Bluebeard is not just raw destruction.  He’s smooth.  He covers his deeds with social grace.  He can be the mechanic who fixes your car or your dentist after hours.  On this take let’s make it subtle.  We want our audience to find him in their lives.”

“Is Bluebeard ever a woman?” asked Rosalie.

“Could be.”  John threw his arms up as if fending off blows from Linda, who giggled and ducked her head.  Roland let out a mirthless laugh, but Connie gave him a quelling look and he became abruptly quiet, sinking into his sallow skin and bones.

Rosalie thought that, yes, if any woman could play the subtle murderer, killing a little each day, it would be Connie.  As a county caseworker hired recently, Connie had made remarks about Rosalie’s work.  But with May in charge—sweet May who had stayed on past retirement for the love of families—Rosalie could afford to ignore Connie.  Now May had retired and Connie was applying for supervisor, though Rosalie had been assured the application would not be taken seriously.

Kathleen paced, turning sometimes toward Rosalie and Fred on stage, sometimes toward the rest in the pews, her empty hand held out.  “I thought I left my book on my back porch this afternoon.  Oh, well.  We’ll manage.”  Her right fingers and thumb pointed up—as if a bubble sat on the tips.  A bubble of meaning.  “He sometimes knocks her around, but not always.  What other tools does he use?  Let’s put some of the social frosting back on this cake.”  She turned toward Fred.  “Ask yourself this:  How do today’s Bluebeards make wives want to die, or believe they are dying, or believe they deserve to fail—which is slow death?”

Pam whispered to Barbara, “Without the book, we are on our own.  No reviewing the fairy tale for inspiration like we did last week.  Probably take the story someplace the ancient mothers never intended.”

“That’s okay,” Barbara whispered back.  “It’s our play.”

Fred said, “I get it.  I might not need the beard for this.”  Not in costume, he threw an imaginary beard into the wings.

“Keep the beard,” Rosalie said.  “We have to stay with the name.”

“Oh, all right.  Fred lumbered into the wings, bent over, picked up the imaginary beard and put it on.  Coming back on stage he said, “I’ll grow one.”


Twenty people, crew and actors, quieted at once.



Bluebeard’s wife comes in timidly, feeling for the coat hook while keeping her eyes on Bluebeard where he sits at the table.  After several tries she gets the coat to stick on the hook.  She wraps her arms around her books and takes a step further into the room.

“So? Back from your little accounting class, dear?”

Her mouth opens but she does not speak.

“Don’t feel bad, honey.  Not everyone is cut out to be an accountant.  Consider yourself lucky to find it out before you spend more hours over those dull books.”

Her shoulders slump.  She is seemingly unable to move or speak.  At last she says, “I thought…I thought I did okay tonight…”

“Why should you sweat over numbers when you have me to take care of you?”  His voice is like syrup, and the smile he offers is mirthless.

The wife again opens and closes her mouth.


“Cut.  That’s it.  You’ve taken us into it.  We’ll keep all versions.  They are all true.”  She turned toward the lights in the loft at the back of the sanctuary.  “Bruce, we’ll darken the stage between takes to let the actors get back to their starting places.  We’ll roll it several times, always impromptu.”

“Got it!”

The crew and actors clapped.  Fred and Rosalie danced a quick jitterbug.

Bruce turned off the stage lights and came down from the loft, his long legs taking the stairs three at a time.  He beckoned Rosalie.  “Should we check on the kids?”

“Sure.”  She went to the hallway to call Gideon.

“Everything okay at home, hon?”

“Sure, Mom.  We ate ice cream.”

In Gideon’s world, that meant very okay.

“Bruce wants to know how Anthony is doing.”

“Sleeping.  He ate ice cream.”

“Good.  Did they brush their teeth?”

“Yes, Mom!  You’re such a worry worm!”

She ignored this.  “We’ll be home by ten-thirty.”

“I know.  Jeez.  You told me three times already!”

She hung up, turned to Bruce.  “We argued this afternoon.  Gideon called his sister a jock-jerk for playing soccer.  When I corrected him he called me a wolf bitch and said, ‘It’s all because of that stupid minister’s book!’  He said, ‘You’re doing black magic at the church, Mom.’  Sometimes I can’t believe he’s only twelve.”

Bruce gave her a rueful smile.  “It’s not his fault.  He wants to lead his siblings forward into the world like a brother should—but the world we offer is corrupt.”

“You’re right,” she said.  “Decadent lyrics in heavy metal music, the worship of angst, black clothing, body metal, tattoos.  Our kids are driven to these extremes because all lesser ways of making a statement have been used up.”

“He accuses grownups of black magic?”  Bruce chuckled.

“Being left in charge does him good, though.  Oh, they ate ice cream.  That’s his report. ”

When Bruce was back behind the lights, Fatima and Linda began a rendition of the red shoes that dance the girl.  Fred was at the piano trying out tunes while the two women discussed what they wanted to do with the scene.   But it was getting late.

“Let’s pick it up here next rehearsal,” said Kathleen.

People gathered jackets and ponchos, found wet umbrellas.

“Same time next week!”  Kathleen said above the rustle of departure.  “Hey, where are Connie and Roland?”

No one had seen them leave.

“Roland probably had to get back to the Pizzeria,” Fred said.

“But without saying good-bye?”  Linda frowned, pulling the corners of her mouth down in mock grief.

Raggedy, flaccid clouds, having burst like milkweed pods, traveled on a fast wind.  Remnants of the storm quickly blew into the Catskills.  The moon shone through the tatters, lighting the parting of the cast.  Fatima got into Pam’s Toyota.  They sped away up Main Street toward the hills west of town where Pam’s daughter Gail would have gone across the road and taken Fatima’s cocker spaniel out for a waddle.  John and Linda walked Main Street arm in arm like the long-married good friends they were.  He had parked his truck beside Webber Bros. shop, the tire place where he worked part time to support their wool and vegetable farm.  Vera and Kathleen went back inside, Vera to pin back the curtains and straighten the platform for Sunday morning, Kathleen to put the finishing touches on her sermon.

“I don’t think they get it yet about Bluebeard,” Vera said.

Kathleen paused on her way to her study to put an arm across Vera’s shoulders.  “I know.  Be patient.  Impromptu theatre is a process.”


Outside the church Bruce brushed Barbara’s arm.


She scowled, a wary look in her gray eyes.

“What?” he said.

She ran pale fingers through a dark fringe of hair.  “It’s just—anyone who spends time with me runs into Duane sooner or later.  My son is…difficult!”

“I’m not scared.  Maybe I can help.”  Arm at her shoulder, he nudged her along.

“And maybe you could get stomped on.”

His turned to raise an eyebrow.

She said, “Duane is not violent.  But his words can get to you.  Like Fatima was saying of her family men.”

Bruce was not daunted.  “I’m game.  It’s only serious if blood is spilled.”

“Don’t misunderstand my reluctance to go out with you.  I like skinny blond guys with a dimple in one cheek.”

With his free hand he rubbed at his cheek, a grin plastered across his face.  They turned in at the Pizzeria.

At the counter Barbara said, “Decaf, cream, no sugar.”

“Black for me, Roland.”

With efficient motions born of years of serving, Roland filled two mugs.  “I’ll bring them to the table.  My waitress left as soon as I got back, had a late date tonight.”

“Where’s Connie?” Barbara looked around.

“Went to bed.  Said the rehearsal took too much out of her.”

“She didn’t have a part!” said Bruce.

“She don’t like stories about bullies.  Too close to home.”  He turned to Barbara. “Did you know your ex is back in town?”


“Been in here with Duane.”

“Thanks for the warning.”

Barbara chose a booth and looked out into the night.  Across the street a large maple tree rose above the dry cleaners, its wet trunk glistening, lacey branches moving against the eastward hurrying clouds.

When the coffees arrived, she turned from the window, blinking at the brightness inside.  She stirred two creamers in, licked the spoon clean, and placed it carefully on a napkin.   “Even with mugs you need saucers.”  She looked thoughtful.  “I’ll give you a pleasant example of life with Duane Tinker.  For his birthday three years ago I put a sign on our table saying Happy Fifteenth!  When he got home he took one look at the sign and demanded I throw it out.  “‘What if my friends see?  God, you’re stupid!  How did I get the dumbest mother in the world?  I bet you give people the wrong change at the bank.  You don’t even know where to get a good haircut.’  And on like that.  I was ready to apologize for the sign—he had a point—but when Duane gets going no one else gets to say anything further.  That was three years ago.  He’s honed his critical skills.  Uses bigger words—and tells me my words don’t mean what I say they mean.  It’s not something you want any part of, Bruce.”

“I’m sorry.”

Barbara stared at the table for a while, her eyes glazed with remembering.  “Maybe he was right.  Teenagers are sensitive about having a mother anywhere in the background.  I should have known better.  But there was something over the top about his reaction, the venom in his voice.”  She took a breath and let it out.  Her chest beneath small breasts caved inward.  The next breath did not restore to it any fullness.

“I have always been the wrong mother for Duane.”

He put his hand over hers.  “Seems more like Duane would have made any mother feel like a failure.  If Anthony didn’t do more than his share of the loving, I don’t know where I’d be.”

Her smile spread into a broad grin.  “I like Anthony.  And you’re good for me.”  But immediately she sobered.  “Bruce, you don’t want my son in your son’s life.  You just don’t.  Let’s stick with a coffee now and then.”


At the driveway, Duane turned to Adam.  “Light’s on.  She’s home.  Hell, I can handle Barbara.”

“Why do you call her Barbara?”

“Cause she doesn’t deserve to be called Mom after what she did to my father!”

They lingered in the muddy gravel, sharing a joint.

“Hey, this is good shit.  What’d she do to him?”

“Drove him away.”


“Yes, really.”

“How’d she do that?”

“By being a bitch.”

When Adam left, Duane went unsteadily up the steps and in, letting the door slam.  He bumped into the small table that held the phone book and a message pad.  Pen, pad, and phone book scattered across the hall floor.  He stepped on the open phone book, leaving a muddy Reebok print.

Barbara appeared in the living room doorway.  She had been ready to give him a warm welcome.  After all, one day he would come home grown and reachable, wouldn’t he, ready to be friends?  But the warmth died in her throat.

“Duane, could you pick up what you spilled?  And take your muddy shoes off.”

“Pick it up yourself, Bitch.  You’re the one keeps a table in the way.”

“There’s plenty of room to walk.”

“You see how it is with you, Bitch.  I come home.  Do you say hello?  No.  All you do is bitch at me, out of the blue, for no reason, just because you’re a bitch!”  He stomped muddily up to his room.

She set table, book, pad, and pen to rights, got broom and dustpan, brushed fine wet gravel off the stairs and hallway floor.  For a time she stood with the broom in one hand, the dustpan carefully level in the other, staring up the stairs.  She sighed and opened the front door, dumped the gravel into the driveway.  She said aloud, “This way the planet won’t run out of soil.”

Chapter Two: Colored Light

While she prepared dinner, Rosalie recalled a family story about her grandmother.  Grammie had been forking stale hay around the pig pen, aided by her two younger children, when a bear came sniffing at the door and nosed it open, its great head and small eyes over the sill.  “Hey,” she yelled, “not so fast!!”  Striding to the door she shoved the dung fork at the bear.  Perhaps she hardly grazed the shoulder, though later versions of the story had her making a strike.  She shouted, “Scram! These piglets are not your dinner!”  The noise scared the bear, who turned with a snuffly grunt and disappeared into the dusk.  Since Grammie had sometimes called her children piglets, no one who heard the story doubted she’d meant the kids, too.  At supper the two children talked endlessly about how “mom fought the bear.”  Soon all five children believed they had been present.  The family told the story every Thanksgiving.

The minister knocked on Rosalie’s back door.  Seeing her neighbor busy with dinner, she came in without waiting for answer.  While Rosalie spread tomato sauce and cheese on a cookie sheet rectangle of dough, Kathleen made mugs of mint tea and sat at the table.  Rosalie put the pizza in the oven and opened a jar of green beans canned last summer.  Kathleen stretched her long legs under the table.

“I always feel tall when I’m with you, Rosalie.”

“And I feel little—but that’s okay.  Even Gideon makes me feel small lately.  I was just wishing I had my grandmother’s toughness to deal with Gi…”

“Let’s not talk about Gideon.  I need you to listen.  I keep thinking of Renny.  I can’t figure out why he never comes back for the things he left in my attic.  The ashram isn’t that far away.  I feel like he’s leaving his possessions as a sort of hedge—like his decision to be a celibate monk isn’t final.”

“He was here some months ago, right?”

“Over a year ago.  I understood his choice—but I thought we’d still be friends.”

Rosalie got out plates and cups.  “I never thought I’d be a minister’s best friend and confidant.”

“Ministers are people.  What you get for being a good listener—so listen.”

“All right.  Tell me about Renny.”

“Oh, well, you know what they do at the ashram, sit still and empty their minds.”  Kathleen chuckled.  “Emptying my mind is the furthest from my ambitions.  I’d lose a hundred plays, some few of my own creation.”  She watched Rosalie’s domestic motions, deep in thought.  At last she said, “He tends gardens.  He cooks and cleans.  They all do.”

“I know.  They make work a meditation.  Didn’t you two meet in college?”

“Umm.  Then we went to the same seminary.  Spent a lot of time together.  We seemed destined to marry.  Evenings after class, we circled the campus fountain or sat on its cool marble edges, me talking and waving my arms, him nodding quietly, his eyes lit by a nearby lamp.  How can I describe that look?  Serene, serene as tidal pools that have no memory of the roiling sea.  Have you ever been to the coast of Maine?  My parents took me there once.  There’d be ocean in motion, and then at low tide these tidal pools, still as mirrors, unaffected by the waves.  That’s Renny.”

“I liked him.”

“Most people do.  Renny has his high tides, storms even, but he always returns to stillness.  You could see starfish in his eyes, and periwinkles clinging to granite in his depths.  That clear.  I was the scrappy one.”

“May you always be scrappy!”

“He likes me for it.  Then, we have a lot in common.  Same coppery hair, though his is more blond.  You should have seen us, Rosalie.  Between classes in the Prophets, the Gospels, the Psalms, pastoral counseling, the world’s religions, and social theory, we talked and talked.  We tried to disagree safely, to not take different paths.”


“I’d ask why the Buddha never talks about God and he’d say because there were too many gods in India by then and all of them suspect.”

“Good point.”

“I thought so.  He’d remind me that Hindu culture was very old by the time Gautama Siddhartha came along—very wise in its inception but subject to the same cultural drift we know.”

“Cultural drift?”  Rosalie raised a questioning eyebrow.

“Corruptions of original truth.  Anyway, our debates were never mean-spirited.  We talked politics.  We talked relationships, endlessly.  We’d debate whether when love was unbalanced between two people, one was more lovable or the other was better at loving.  Whatever we discussed in the evening we continued over a muffin or bagel at the student union next morning.  We asked each other how come neither of us was Catholic and found we had the same family history, the Protestant Irish who had come to the United States seeking religious freedom.”

“I never thought of that.”

“Well sure.  Our forebears hoped Americans were not still too British for comfort—and they hoped even more fervently the Catholic Irish were not too numerous.  But their children didn’t worry the same.  In the new country, old animosities faded.  Until some generations later, Renny and I could smile at the seemingly unnecessary troubles of our ancestors.”  She stopped to blow on her tea.  “I don’t like hot.  Here’s a funny story about Reynald McClean, Renny’s great-grandfather and namesake.  In Belfast the family lived two doors away from a Catholic family.  Many an evening the two fathers would have come to blows had it not been for the mediating Jewish family in the apartment between.”

Rosalie smiled.  She fished the cooked pizza out of the oven and set it to cool.  “You two were really close.”

“That’s what I’m trying to tell you.  It’s not like Renny to stay away.  He knows if he called I’d come get him.  Plus, they do have a few cars.  I know he hasn’t forgotten me.”

“What happened that split you up?”

“He felt called to be a monk.  Said it was lots of reasons.  A minor one was to stay away from liquor.  He didn’t want to die of liver failure like his father.  I said I was okay with his being a monk and wanted to know if we were still friends.  Renny said, ‘Forever!’  Said it strong and sure.  Now here I am wondering what happened to our forever.”

Rosalie sat down, took Kathleen’s hand in both of hers.  “I’m sorry, girlfriend.”

“Thanks.”  Kathleen shook her head.  “Sometimes I want to go there just to be near him, but I can’t be a monk.  I mean, look what I have here—a pastorate that allows me to direct theatre productions, a congregation of good people in an energetic river town, all within ninety minutes of Albany.  We even have the symphony orchestra.  Oh, there’s corruption here in Little Bridge like everywhere, but not enough to overwhelm the goodness.  I can be neighbors with my parishioners.  You and Fred helped me find a house next door to you.  Bruce across the street with little Anthony, charming child.  Then there’s Vera on the other side of your house.  Plays grandmother to your kids when you’re late home from work.  How many people still have this kind of community?”

“We are lucky.  Did you find your lost book?”

“No.  After rehearsal I went around by the back porch where I thought I left it.  Remember you’d stepped over in your poncho and said you needed a breather even if it was raining and something Gideon said about Women Who Run with the Wolves?  Remember I said to ignore him?”

At this, Rosalie picked up a spoon and gave Kathleen a token wrap on the knuckles.  “We’re not talking about Gideon.”

“Sorry.  My bad.”

“After you left, the phone rang and I put the book on the backless chair I use for a porch table—or thought I did.  When I came back the book was gone.”

Rosalie put her hand to her mouth.  “You don’t suppose Gideon took it!”

“Of course not.  Gideon’s all mouth.  He doesn’t do bad deeds.  See what I mean, you always think the worst of your son.  I probably took the book inside with me and put it in some unlikely place.  It’ll turn up.”


From her place on the raised dais this wet Sunday morning, Kathleen looked out over the somber congregation and knew they needed rays.  She said a quick prayer for spring to hurry.  Fred Summers whispered with his daughter Hannah, while Rosalie held Joshua on her lap.  Gideon had not come with them.  Linda was there without John.  It was lambing season.  Fatima and Pam sat with Pam’s daughter Gail, looking half coerced, between them.  Kathleen doubted that Pam could have persuaded Gail to come, but Fatima might have done so.  Roland slouched beside Connie in the back of the church, resting his head in his hands.  He had once told Kathleen—Connie had been busy cutting coffee cake—that it seemed a great benefit of church that people stopped talking for an hour or two, that they sang hymns and listened.  “I don’t care what your sermon is about—just so it shuts them up.  I must be in the wrong business, wishing for quiet.  A pizzeria is a damned zoo.  And now that Barbara started us meditating after prayer, even you shut up.”  He had smirked.

After the opening rituals, the children and Sunday School teachers filed into the annex.

Kathleen scanned the scattering of folks left in the pews.  “My sermon today is about waiting.  Many of you saw the play we performed in the winter, Waiting for Godot by Samuel Becket.  A few of you were in the play.  My question for you today is this:  How long should we wait?”  She paused.  “Remember the last time you waited for someone?”

There was an alert interest, though no one was meant to answer.

“What was that like?  If it was a long wait and you had no word from the person, what did you think of the character of that person?”

Vera sat in the back, observing.  Joanna Humphreys, she noted, had put away the violin she had played during offertory and now sat still as a frightened rabbit in a front pew.  In the back Connie pointed a finger at Roland, who whispered loud enough for Vera to hear, “She doesn’t mean work.  I can’t predict when I’ll get the place cleaned up after closing.”

The minister continued.  “There are all kinds of waiting.  When I was a child I waited to grow up.  Later I waited to be asked to the prom.  I’m happy girls now ask boys for dates.  It’s saner than waiting.  In adulthood I’ve waited for angels to fix this sorry world where people die of starvation and war, or where they die little by little in families that don’t work like families should.  Waiting is not an effective response.  Life requires action.  I’m going to suggest something to you here, something you may find a little unsettling.”

The old church creaked.  Vera thought it listened.

The minister said, “We are the angels, embodied here and now.  We have the power to fix the world.”  No one stirred.  “We are Godot.  We are the one for whom we wait.”

Rosalie sat back.  Fred stopped scratching his new beard.  Roland lifted his chin from his chest.  Connie sat straight, eyes narrowed as if she sensed danger in the sermon.  Indeed, several in the congregation watched the minister with wary eyes as children might watch strangers set up a tent on the lawn.

“I don’t believe God got the world into trouble.  It’s really not very nice of us to accuse a Devil, either, when it’s obvious who did it.  We got ourselves in, mankind, our ancestors and ourselves with our fighting.  And it’s up to us to get ourselves out.  We are here to work out our own salvation.  Let us act.”

During coffee hour Pam said, “I was hoping for less responsibility.”

Fatima grinned.  “It’d be nice to have a heavenly parent in charge, to be rewarded and pampered.  But Kathleen is right.  My grandmother used to talk about stewardship.  She’s quieter now—broken hearted about the world.”

Vera was at the refreshment table slicing a round, lightly glazed carrot cake Pam had brought (along with a sign assuring one and all that the ingredients were spelt flour and unrefined cane sugar).  Bits of conversation floated around the table.  Joanna Humphreys nodded when anyone spoke.  Connie was saying, “If everyone just did what they were supposed to do.”  Roland lacked reliable employees in the Pizzeria.  Fatima meant to spend part of her summer with her Native American grandmother “to recharge my cultural batteries.”

Bruce asked Fred how the new house was progressing.  “You guys did great to get that contract.”


Anthony, blond bangs flying, came running in from Sunday School with a peace pipe he had made, a spool with a straw and a feather attached.  Joshua and several others were right behind him, waving peace pipes.  The class was studying Native American culture and beliefs.

Linda told Kathleen, “John hasn’t had a whole night’s sleep for two weeks.  But the lambing will be done soon.”   The two had walked away from the refreshment table and now stood under a stained-glass window where a sunbeam struck through Mary’s robe.  Blue light shone on wisps of Kathleen’s hair, shifting to her face, as she inclined her head to listen.  “Used to be we didn’t make a lot from sheep.  They were our hobby.  I would wash and card and spin the wool and sell locally.  Now I sell my yarns and weavings at all the craft fairs.  We are doing so well John plans to take time off to go to Albany next Saturday morning.  There’s a new men’s group starting up, modern warriors.  He says something is missing from church and he means to find it.  Uh…I hope you’re not offended.”

“No.  Maybe the men will find out how we are supposed to live.  Modern warrior groups are based on the old stories.”

The noon sun beamed through glass leaves and haloes and the peachy face of the baby Jesus, the colors shining on the clothes and arms and faces of the two women.  Forgetting to talk, they moved and turned under green and yellow and ruby.  Joseph’s red cloak shone on Linda’s arm.  She danced sideways and pulled Kathleen into the red.

Vera caught Rosalie’s eye and motioned toward the Reverend and her parishioner, quilted with colored light.  Rosalie said, “Of course, an artist today would probably make the baby Jesus darker, more Ethiopian.”  Rosalie knew the glass scene had been created a hundred years ago of a story two thousand years old.  Now, under it, the minister and Linda were linked with the artist and the healer, time bending backwards and forwards under one sun.   She said, “I suppose it’s not exactly the same sun now as the one that shone on the Holy Family—like you can’t step into the same Susquehanna twice.”

Vera snorted.  “I wouldn’t step in even once until the flood goes down.”

Rosalie chuckled.

Moving their arms to change colors, forgetting the voices around them, Kathleen and Linda laughed like the children who squealed from the open doorway, “The sun is out!  The sun is out!” The two women sparkled and shone as if in a waking dream where beings spoke in color and where energy translated easily into all its forms—sunshine, attention, love, exuberance, money, goods, hope, passion, and friendship.


As coffee hour came to a close and people cleaned the kitchen, Rosalie quietly teased Kathleen about waiting for Renny and, without waiting for a response, gathered her family and sent them down the walkway toward home.  When most people had left, Joanna Humphreys lingered.

“Come on in my office,” Kathleen said.

“It’s about Eugene,” Joanna said, sitting on the edge of a chair, purse on her lap.  “Well, it’s about our marriage.  See, I don’t know if the way my husband and I are is right and I know you’re single but I thought maybe they taught you, you know, in minister classes, how to help couples.”

“I studied marriage counseling.”  Kathleen sat easily in a second chair by a small table.  She thought, How can one so sure of a violin be so unsure of herself?  “Tell me.”

“Eugene’s a good person.  I’m not complaining.  Don’t get me wrong.  It’s just that, well, he acts like he thinks I’m going to get mad at him.  It’s like he doesn’t dare put his arms around me without first asking permission.  I suppose it’s respectful, but I wish, I wish he’d just sometimes, you know, decide.  Why should I always have to invite?  There’s no thrill for me.  The thrill is in his taking charge, creating something for us.  Forgive me.  I know you’re single.  I just feel so alone.”  Joanna slumped over her purse.

“No.  Please don’t apologize.  Yours is a common complaint, especially among women married to men of northern European descent.  Women married to Mediterranean types have other complaints, but they don’t often have this one.  Probably that’s a stereotype, though there seems to be some truth to it.  Here.”  Kathleen pulled a book off the shelf.  “This is a collection of letters written between two women in the days when women still wrote letters.  One mentions problems similar to yours.  Reading these might make you feel less alone.”

Watching her leave, Kathleen rubbed her face, wondering whatever happened to women’s groups.  Joanna needed the support of other wives!  And she was not the first woman to come to her, a single woman, about marriage problems.  “I have no answers,” she usually said, shaking her head.   She took down Rabbi Jesus by Bruce Chilton, a book that talked about the respect Jesus had had for women, why women had become his disciples and worked side by side with men to found the new church.  Kathleen thought it must have been fun to be alive then, energized by the miracles of healing and the even greater miracle of seeing a people find strength and free will.


“Come on, quick, Cody, before they lock the church.  I want to show you something.”  The two boys ran into the annex.  “Here, it’s in this closet.  A secret ladder.”

Gideon opened a closet and pushed aside some choir robes to reveal a series of boards nailed across two studs.  He climbed up, Cody at his heals.  “Look, it’s the way to the bell.”

Cody pushed his belly onto the sill beside Gideon.

“See, that’s the rope that pulls the side of the bell so it will ring.”  Gideon reached out and caught the rope in his hand.

“Geez, Gid, don’t ring it!  We’ll be toast.”

“I found this ladder when I was a little kid but I wasn’t big enough to climb it.  Don’t tell.”

Gideon let the rope go and the boys climbed down.

They encountered the minister in the vestibule where the bell rope gently swayed as if a breeze high in the belfry had nudged it.  She looked at the rope and at the boys.  “Hi, Gideon.  Hi, Cody.  What’s up?”

“I just wanted to show Cody the…ah, Sunday School.”

“You are welcome to bring your friend to church.”

“Cody’s mother won’t let him.  Baptists don’t go to other churches like we do.”

“I see.”

The boys took off at a run.  Kathleen looked back at the rope.  She shrugged and shut the door, thinking as she walked home that religion was an on-going creation.  That spooked a lot of folks who wanted it all safely settled.  She was grateful to have found this enclave of hardy ones willing to explore, to bring into spirit the spirit of adventure.  She liked many portions of the Bible.  Simply, the familiar stories seemed to have lost their power to startle—though it was a very startling book.  What could be more surprising—or alarming—than having an angel walk straight into your home and wrestle you into the sheepskins?  No, Kathleen didn’t long for other times, even if being a minister today was difficult.  She knew better than to try to please the board or the people.  If a minister lacked courage, what would the flock do?  A sermon that put up a protective hedgerow wouldn’t ring true.

She cut behind the houses and walked through the back yards.  Vera waved from her kitchen door.  Rosalie was busy at the stove, Joshua at the sink proudly washing lettuce.  Kathleen reached her own back porch, still thinking.  She assured herself she gave good guidance and shared her resources freely.  Her education was thorough.  She knew several translations of the Christian Bible, had read the Torah.  She knew the book of Mormon, parts of the Quran, and some Buddhist and Hindu texts as well as Native American religious thought.  She addressed her public prayers to God, Yahweh, the Lord of All That Is, the Goddess, Our Mother the Earth, Grandfather/ Grandmother.  Her sermons honored “all our relations” and a steadfast belief in the goodness of folks.  She reminded her parishioners that the Quakers said there is that of God in everyone. She invited them to be more than sheep, to read for themselves the research of Chilton, who studied the Bible in four languages, Greek, Aramaic, Latin, and Hebrew.  To explore Jack Kornfield’s A Path with Heart, Thomas Moore’s Care of the Soul, and Riane Eisler’s The Chalice and the Blade, based on the archeological explorations of Marija Gimbutas into the Goddess culture of Old Europe.  Recently she had given a sermon based on M. Scott Peck’s A World Waiting to Be Born. Peck’s way of bringing community to the workplace fascinated her—and her interest had caught on with some of the congregation.  Worship was not just for Sunday morning but for all of life, as these books made clear.  The reading group that met on Monday evenings put Kathleen’s favorites on their list.

Books.  Vera had accused her of lugging her copy of Women Who Run with the Wolves between home and church “like a child’s blanky.”

“I know.  I miss my book,” she had said.  But when Linda offered to loan her copy, Kathleen said, “Mine will turn up—with all my notes in the margins.”


Pam’s third graders at the West End Elementary School were making Earth Day posters for the upcoming date when, by agreement all across the town and nation, people raked away cans and bottles and trash from the parks and along the highways.  “We must do things to help our land,” she said.  There would be a walking field trip to put the posters up around town.  The children, idealists one and all, drew renditions of a clean land with smile-faced flowers, bunnies, and fish.  Hannah and Chelsea worked together on a poster showing squirrels eating nuts.  It said, Don’t Feed Squirrels Trash.  Under the caption they printed the information about Earth Day.

At the Pizzeria Fred was picking up sub sandwiches and cokes for his crew.  Roland asked how the minister could talk so blithely about action when he had all the action he could use all day from early until late and his stomach acting up again.  Fred said, “I hear you, man.  At least I have my Saturdays.  I’m going to donate another one to Habitat for Humanity.  Take Gideon with me.  Get him out of Rosalie’s hair and give him a taste of how we house our poorest families.”  Up on the hill John came in with a handful of fresh spinach he’d grown in the hot bed on the sunny side of the house.  Linda said, “That’s my kind of action.”  At the bank Wendy Seaton, with the wide eyes and flattened features of Fetal Alcohol Syndrome, wrote an eight and a zero on her deposit slip while the line backed up behind her.  Barbara resisted the urge to help her.  And Fatima at her desk looked fondly at a picture of her fat cocker spaniel.  “I sure ain’t leaving it up to you, girl.”

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