Father Bill had been sent away. There was a home for them in South Carolina, her mother said, a place where they could straighten out. Jenny wondered if there were bars on the windows. It happened almost overnight. He presided at Mass on Ash Wednesday, and the next morning they saw him two doors down at the brownstone rectory, scraping ice off his windshield with the edge of a plastic cassette case. Then into the car went two suitcases and a stack of books. He did not look back. Hypocrites, her mother said, and she stopped going, even though she kept her part-time job selling rosaries and holy cards at Catholic Supply in the church basement. Jenny went ahead and made her first confession and communion that year. She never got over the allure of confession, the dusty maroon curtain, the whispers and stories, the buoyant relief, saying her penance at the communion rail, having been absolved of her childish sins, little lies and selfishness.

Her father moved out a year later. The Wabash had flooded. She had been afraid of the river water swirling around the tires. Leaning out the window of the Rambler station wagon. They had been to the zoo and eaten frozen custard—it was the first day of frozen custard season, which was really ice cream. Frozen custard had been outlawed, but the sign stayed the same, a polar bear dancing a jig. Her father let her get out of the car and pick her way to the house around the smelly puddles on the sidewalk before he gunned the engine and disappeared out of town, her mother said, and across the state line, to Ohio. These memories were folded in with others from that turbulent time: Waverly coming to live upstairs for the rent money; her grandfather’s heart attack and the funeral where she had glimpsed the men drinking from a brown bottle in a back room of the funeral parlor on Ferry Street; her mother saying, “No more church. No more confession. No more fish on Friday. Promise me you’ll never go.”

    Then things calmed down. Jenny became a gatherer of secrets, a gossip. These morsels she brought to her mother every evening for twenty-five years, always the sins of others, never her own. As she grew up, if ever guilt nagged at her, she would think, How could it be gossip if people told on themselves?

    Jenny sometimes spied curiously on the weddings or funerals spilling out on the limestone steps of the church, both occasions appearing similar to the casual observer, with well-wishers or mourners dressed in pin-striped suits and lace-trimmed navy-blue dresses squared off with shoulder pads. At Catholic Supply her mother’s boss was now Father Rickie; they would see him in the summertime, cooking over a hibachi on the widow’s walk of the rectory. Jenny sometimes daydreamed about the confessional. She stopped in front of the church and memorized the Mass and reconciliation schedule, thinking, Someday. Her sins were backlogged, a clerical mess. They seemed to infect her like particular strains of the flu. Spite was big the winter her mother and Waverly got together, the same year Eddie Fox and Sharla got together. Spite and jealousy and meanness.

At the last Halloween party, Sharla had come dressed as the boss, His Honor, head of English, in an olive-drab trench coat and wingtip shoes that had probably belonged to a dead man, purchased at the Goodwill for one dollar. The secretaries always made fun of him. A fashion plate in his early forties, he wore his black hair shaggy like a seventies rock star, and he smelled of pipe tobacco and garlic, which he believed to have curative powers. His wife had gone to Oregon to care for her ailing parents and never returned. He finally divorced her, but not bitterly. Sharla was not his secretary, Jenny was. He wanted to remarry, he had confided when Jenny saw him packing up family photos to take home. He didn’t want reminders of his ex around. There were no children to keep up appearances for. Jenny imagined that he wanted children and sometimes she pictured bringing a baby home to him. Wrapped in a pastel receiving blanket. A boy with a mass of black hair. All the steps before that, leading up to a baby, were foggy. Only staff and junior faculty attended the Halloween bash; Sharla’s costume was a secret amongst them. As the night wore on, she’d opened the trench coat like a flasher and shown them her lace teddy. The lights had been dim; you couldn’t see everything. She’d been a little drunk on mimosas and Eddie had taken her home. Jenny had laughed as loudly as anyone when Sharla flashed open the trench coat. She wanted to be part of it all, but she decided right then to edge Sharla out.

Before Tarkington College, Jenny Rogers had worked selling services—Chem-Dry carpet cleaning, septic tank pumping, landscaping, efforts at tidiness, wholesomeness, and beauty. In a cement block building on the edge of a nearly abandoned industrial park, she would sit in a padded cubicle under skim-milky florescence, a headset on to leave her hands free, and she took orders, usually from women. She would wonder what their houses were like. Jumbles of toys and inherited knick-knacks, or streamlined, maple and stainless steel, with what she still called under-the-counter dishwashers—she and her mother had never had one. She envied the men who went out on the jobs. They smelled the house smells—lemon oil or perfume or baby powder—while Jenny was stuck with a magazine picture of Lake Michigan in winter tacked to her cubicle wall. But she had escaped that life. She had been at Tarkington College for nearly eleven years, a hunger satisfied.

    She had her own office, attached to His Honor’s, with doors she could shut if she wanted to listen to a love song on the radio turned low or if she wanted a good cry—that had happened only twice, but she liked knowing a modicum of privacy was possible. Her office had a window—not all did—and many admired her view: a brick patio surrounded by river birches and yellow tulips that bloomed in April. Sharla in the main office received everyone—Fed Ex delivery, students, faculty, spouses of faculty with new babies to show off. Gayleen spent her days in the eight-by-fifteen photocopy room across the hall. They called the head His Honor behind his back. Keep the kid gloves handy, Jenny would say, he was one to tiptoe around. You never knew when he might jab you with a smart remark. Several mornings a week he worked at home on a book some people said he’d been writing for ten years, a book about theory, she’d been told, what wasn’t real, just an idea, Jenny translated. During his mornings at home she took visitors. Students and faculty would stop by, discreetly checking to see if His Honor was out. They would lean in her doorway or perch on the library chair which she’d dressed up with a kitchen chair pad printed with pink toasters and tea cups. They might say, “Cute as a button,” at the photo of her tortoise shell cat—Jellybean. Or they might bring her bags of zucchini from their gardens.

    She would get the lowdown.

    Sooner or later, everyone told secrets.

    She knew that after the league games at Star Lanes, the men on the bowling team went to the Lingerie Demonstrations out on State Highway 23.

    She knew the reproductive history of everyone, when pregnancy scares occurred, when pregnancy tests were taken, when miscarriages and abortions were buried in the souls of would-be mothers.

    She waited for cat-scan results.

    She knew about lumps and suspicious moles.

    She loaned small sums of money to needy students.

    She knew when professors were canceling classes to go for job interviews at more prestigious institutions. You wouldn’t have to go far for that. The course load at Tarkington was four/four. The class cap was thirty-five.

    And the affairs of the heart, the field of sexual energy surrounding people who were smitten or people who had met at the wrong time, wrong place, who were married or committed to others—she had radar for that.

    Students said she was a surrogate mother. At those moments, an inner voice nearly squealed at her. Lighten your hair! Get a tattoo! Buy velour tights! Still, she didn’t take offense, even though she was only thirty-two. It was something to hide behind.

    All winter Jenny plotted to make Sharla look bad. The holidays were an excuse for frivolity, for trays of iced cookies brought in for general consumption and personal leave time extended for shopping. It was easy to blame Sharla for a job not quite completed; Jenny did not have to lie; she merely pointed out with a shrug and a wince what would have been ignored any other Christmas. Later, in the new year, she stayed after hours and on Sharla’s hard drive she made a slight change in the grammar of a congratulatory form letter to parents of star students. The letter went out without additional proofing and a senior wrote a snotty editorial for the school paper about the poor grammar. A message Sharla had taken was misplaced, torn into tiny pink shreds and flushed down the toilet. Jenny said to His Honor, “I’ll have to keep an eye on her.” “Please, Jen,” he said, with a long-suffering roll of his eyes. She kept tabs on Sharla’s tardiness and reported it, exaggerated it, slipping in musingly, “She might not work out.” “You’re right about that,” he said. “I’ll have a talk with her.”

    Sharla was called in. A compact, determined woman in her mid-twenties, with a ruddy pugnacious face, she sat in Jenny’s office, nervously eyeing His Honor’s door, picking at the appliqué on her felt skirt. You couldn’t remember the color of her hair unless she was right in front of you: linoleum brown. Jenny knew his style: His Honor could put the fear of God in you without being specific. Sharla came out contrite and sidled around the building ashamed for a few days. It was only a matter of time, Jenny self-righteously told her mother when she reported all incidents. She nearly came to believe in Sharla’s laxity herself, losing track of what Sharla had done or not done, losing track of truth in the flushed, almost sexual feeling she had when she was about to sneak around or tattle.

Eddie Fox, who taught geology, had a job offer in Florida. He closed Jenny’s office door for privacy on a blustery Friday in February, the week before Ash Wednesday. She didn’t think of it that way at the time—the week before Ash Wednesday—but later she would. Students darted to and fro beneath her window, their umbrellas blown inside out by a wild gust. Eddie’s cowboy boots turned up at the toes. He wore jeans so smooth they might still be iron-hot to the touch, a white dress shirt, a barn jacket waterproofed with wax. His clean-shaven face was long and scarred from acne along one cheek, a scar the shape of a river’s oxbow. She had watched his strawberry blond hairline recede, but he was the sort of man who joked about it.

    Jenny knew every inch of Eddie; she could bring him forth anytime, anywhere. Thoughts of him could make her feverish with want; she could pass an hour lying on a sofa, sick with desire for him, the way you feel when you’ve eaten too much store-bought cake.

    “What about Sharla?” Jenny said. She felt tears about to come. A ballad on the radio fueled her sadness.

    “We never, you know, made a commitment.” Eddie opened a candy jar and plucked out a miniature chocolate bar, unwrapped it, and popped it into his mouth. She wished he hadn’t said that. She didn’t want to know with what indifference he shrugged off Sharla, in spite of her wish for Sharla to die, disappear, or quit.

    A pro-forma knock interrupted them—she was about to say, Come off it, Eddie. Sharla and Gayleen squeezed into the office.

    Gayleen was a wisp, blond, a chatterbox, always in black, fresh out of junior college.

    Smart as a whip, Eddie had said about Sharla, and for some reason that phrase stuck with Jenny and she resented it every time she was in the presence of Eddie and Sharla at the same time. Jenny didn’t need to be told that. Sharla took the free course every year and she paid for two more. She had thirty credits. The handbags she collected reminded Jenny of sewing baskets. She went to Indy monthly to buy vintage clothes, red sweater sets from the fifties and poodle skirts.

    Eddie excused himself, smilingly. “Got to go, got to go, ladies.” On the way out, he patted Sharla’s knee; she smiled like the Mona Lisa. Jenny could read her a mile away: she was at his mercy.

    “Well?” Jenny said.

    “He’ll be in Tallahassee,” Sharla said, averting her gaze. “I don’t really care, Jen. I never want to get married. Marriage breaks your backbone.”

    Jenny showed them a find from the prior weekend: a stiff black-and-white photograph of a white-haired man in a casket surrounded by rose wreaths. She collected antique funeral photos. Sharla showed them her bracelet made from old buttons, fake ivory and rhinestone. Gayleen suffered these exchanges restlessly, snapping her fingers, wiggling in an abbreviated dance to the classic rock on the radio. Finally she said, “Cabin fever, that’s what I’ve got.”

    She and Sharla left as unceremoniously as they had arrived. They were doing their rounds while His Honor was at a meeting; Jenny would never do that. She was a good girl, her mother said. His Honor had praised her at her annual review; she was doggedly responsible, to force him to praise her. Gayleen would not last long at Tarkington, in Jenny’s opinion. All on her own, she would sabotage the job. She was late more than not, and whined about the work assigned. She talked about moving to Bloomington where covens practiced white magic in public parks. “They want to cast off restraint, Jenny. No guilt.”

    Gayleen had been the source of news regarding Eddie and Sharla, and what Sharla and Eddie thought of marriage had been a predominant theme. Once a week all winter Jenny had accompanied Gayleen on her smoking jaunts to the south steps of the building where they might with luck find diluted sunshine; they would stand in wool coats and scarves, gossiping, while Gayleen smoked a filterless cigarette. To mark the hour, the mechanical bells in the tower would play “The Way We Were.”

    “It’s been going on since summer—you must’ve known,” Gayleen had said, the first time the topic was broached. “They went to the dunes together.”

    “The dunes?”

    “Haven’t you been anywhere?”

    “I’ve been to Wyoming,” Jenny said.

    “What for?”

    “My cousin out there had twins. I went out to help her. Before Chem-Dry. I rode the Greyhound to Gillette and saw antelope in the fields.” She rarely thought about the cousin now, the sweet-poop odor of the babies, their bleating, but the experience had altered her view of motherhood and what it might demand of you. She had decided then it wasn’t worth it. Now she thought babies might be your passion. At campus picnics the babies charmed her. She felt voluptuous and competent in their presence.

    “Well, the dunes are only two hours from here, if you don’t mind speeding.”

    “We didn’t get that far when I took Roadside Geology from him.”

    “They still use condoms.”

    “What difference does that make?”

    Gayleen, for her age, had esoteric knowledge about the nuances of relationship. “It just tells me,” she said, “they’re not that committed. Or she’d get the pill. They have the kind of commitment where you don’t have to talk every day. It’s a level you get to. Some never get past it.”

    Jenny had never considered such stages of commitment. She didn’t know what to expect, but as they talked, over the winter, she knew she did still expect something. Some flood—of desire or care—that would become bedrock sediment. In her mind, the process didn’t take much time, but it might be more geologic.

    The day before Eddie’s announcement about moving to Tallahassee, she had said to Gayleen, “Do you believe in love at first sight?”

    “My mother says that’s an old wife’s tale.”

    “My mother says, ‘Love’s slavery, girl.’”

    She said that, but Jenny could not rely on her mother now. Ever since Thanksgiving her mother and Waverly had been doing it right under her nose. He had carved the turkey. He had called her Mary Lou, what no one had called her mother since high school. She usually went by Suzie-Q, the nickname given her by her brother. How did Waverly know about Mary Lou?

    Gayleen had smirked. “That’s a bad attitude, Jenny. You’ll never find a hubby.” Her voice rose cynically on the word hubby. She bent over and smashed her cigarette butt on the concrete. “Come to Cox’s Pub with us. Karaoke’s fun, Jen. You lose your inhibitions.”

    Jenny always begged off. She couldn’t imagine getting up on stage with young people and making a fool of herself. Inhibitions were God-given, her mother always warned.

The day of Eddie’s announcement, she didn’t want to go home. He’d left her feeling bereft. It was the loss of a fantasy—she was self-aware enough to see that. At home she would have to put up with Waverly, the smell of his pipe tobacco. He had been there every evening for a week. She never told her mother the stories with Waverly there. Her mother would usually have supper on the table. The Christmas tree would be lit in the window, no matter the season. In 1967 her mother’s brother had died in Vietnam two days before Christmas and the tree had been lit ever since. They had replaced the original aluminum tree and the light bulbs had blinked out now and again and been replenished. It was a commitment her grandfather had made and when he passed away, the obligation fell to Jenny’s mother.

    There was always a smell in the house—an electric smell, as if wiring might melt at any moment, and also cigarette butts too long in the ashtray—her mother’s menthols. Thin and brittle, with a mouth wrinkled and soured by smoking, she was given to wearing loose pants and tunics that might have been pajamas, but she wore them to the supermarket and the convenience store on the next block where she purchased cigarettes and Nirvana Cash lottery tickets. Jenny felt an aversive tug away from the house whenever she imagined Waverly kissing that sour mouth. The odor of whatever her mother had cooked would waft over everything, often meat and onions and potatoes in one form or another. She had a cookbook called The Perfect Potato.

    Upstairs Waverly would have left MTV throbbing, as if he had only come down for a moment. For a while when she was still in high school, Waverly had been the one Jenny secretly wanted. He drove a delivery truck for Coca-Cola, and after work she would try to catch him in the yard, tending what he’d planted—Scotch bells and lilies and pinks.

    There was always someone she wanted, someone impossible. She had not been interested in the garden; in fact, she had a mild fear she kept to herself, a fear of dirty hands, and she washed hers more often than necessary.

    She went home anyway; there was no place else to go. She got out of her shoes and into house slippers left by the door in winter. Waverly said, “How’s tricks?” And her mother said, “We’re going to add a deck this spring.” She fanned brochures on the table, pictures of people in shorts and sundresses, lounging on a white deck that blazed in the sun. They ate dinner together, with Waverly pinching tiny bits of food and feeding them to Jellybean, who begged. Jenny pushed her food around on the plate, unable to eat.

     It felt as if her mother were unfaithful to something. But to what? The life they had led. The sameness. Jenny had done whatever her mother said to do, and this was her reward. She tried not to think about Waverly’s body against her mother’s body. It was too rough, too shameful. They were doing it. She was sure of that. Sex was what they could not mention, with him there, but it lay there intangibly on the table. He might be waiting for Jenny to go to her room to reach out, to say something vulgar. Gayleen had told her that lovers are vulgar, like children spouting dirty words. She thought that she might trade rooms with Waverly. Or run away.

    “I might go to church,” Jenny said.


    “I might.” The thought had been surfacing for a while, like a fish coming up out of water to snag insects. Still, she surprised herself.

    “No harm in that,” Waverly said.

    So her mother hadn’t told him everything. There were still some things he didn’t know. She wondered when they had started up. When was that moment when they first really looked at each other? Waverly must have been fifteen years younger than her mother. He chewed his fingernails down to the quick and they were unsightly, stubby, almost obscene. He always wore a Harley-Davidson neckerchief. If she got close to him, he smelled yeasty, like beer.

    “You don’t know anything about it,” Jenny said, her voice quavering. What she felt had so little to do with them; it was all about Eddie Fox.

    Waverly shrugged and pulled Jellybean onto his lap and stroked him. The strokes were long and generous.

    She got up and went into her room, stepping gingerly, gathering her purse, her shoes, as if she had all the time in the world. She put on her special Italian shoes, a find at the AIDS consignment store—suede the color of limes. Gayleen had said they probably had at one time belonged to a drag queen with fake fingernails to match. She didn’t care. She wanted it to be special, for she hadn’t been to confession in over twenty years. When she came out, they were clearing the table. No one said anything. She flung on her coat and hat. She stood in the foyer and pulled on her gloves. She wondered what life was like where Eddie was headed, Tallahassee or a Caribbean island. People there weren’t pulling on gloves in February. There were places where people listened to music outdoors, where they drank tropical drinks and barbecued whole pigs. Loyalties were not secure in places like that. People ran off on boats with strangers. Women wore thongs. Inhibitions were considered old-fashioned, out of the last century. Or the one before that. She could never go. She could never figure out how. One time she had known what that felt like. Only once. What kind of roadside geology would you find there? Wouldn’t Eddie miss the moraines?

    She was just in time. The church felt forbidden. They didn’t hold confession as they had when she was a girl, with the dusty curtain between you and the priest, the anonymity, the halting whispers and sweaty palms. The church lights were dimmed, and the four confessors came in solemn pairs up the aisle in white robes. After an entrance chant, a prayer, the priests—even the Bishop had come—took to their corners, pre-arranged positions here and there around the church. The penitents went like spokes in a wheel to them, and the church was filled with the consistent hum of sin. Jenny went to the back of Father Rickie’s line. She wanted to be last.

    Her hands shook. He was a few years older than she, but Father Rickie seemed young up close, like someone’s little brother. Did he even shave? She heard her mother’s voice: They’re hypocrites. As if that were the worst you could be.

    A small sin might be a good way to begin: a misdemeanor, selfishness, the habit she had of always saving the heels of the bread for herself, for she felt they were a luxury, and her mother thought so, too. Then she would build up to a larger selfishness, how she had not wanted to see her mother’s need. How she had controlled her mother. I’ll be good if you’ll be good. Until now.

    But instead of the small sin, she blurted out, “He showed me the rocks, Father, in the lab storage room. He expected me to help him move them. Just because, I imagine, I work for the college. This would be after hours. We were alone in the building. It’s the one way out by the physical plant—”

    Father Rickie glanced around. “You might want to lower your voice.” He smiled tentatively, encouragingly.

    She tried to be cooperative. She had not anticipated the pleasure in telling her story, the way she had the opportunity to re-live it, the bad parts as well as the good. “He had a big chunk of obsidian in there. Beautiful, black. Glassy. He’d found it himself, he said. He stood so close. I could hear him breathing. I felt like I could—” She burst into tears.

    Father Rickie handed her a clean white handkerchief. “Could what?”

    Through her miserable tears she said, “Like I could hear his heart beating, Father.”

    “When was this, my dear?”

    “Ten years ago, Father.”

    “It was painful for you.”

    “It is now, Father. But then I thought it was what I wanted. I wanted to get rid of my inhibitions.”

    “And did you?”

    She came up for air and worriedly glanced around the church. “He doesn’t believe in marriage.” Her chest hurt from the tears; she thought about Sharla, that Mona Lisa smile, what Sharla had concealed from Eddie. She wanted to say, Tell him what you want.

    “Did you consider marriage?”

    “I thought it might be a reasonable outcome, Father.”

    “That’s what you think—”

    “—when you’re young. I know.”

    The rumors and temptations of people had not fully settled in Father Rickie’s bones the way they had in hers. She saw through Eddie’s exaggerated bonhomie. She understood Waverly’s loneliness. And her mother drinking cold duck on the anniversary of her marriage to Jenny’s father. In spite of everything, she did that. All that Jenny understood—what she had learned from all those secrets—was a gift from God, and that was one reason she had come to confession. They had something in common. She might know more than Father Rickie. Had he ever taken advantage of a girl? Had he ever reached down there without even a preliminary kiss? Had he ever ignored the girl after?

    Eddie Fox had come up behind her while she admired the obsidian. It was a late summer evening, during the last heat wave of the year, right after classes had begun; the marching band practiced in a field not far away, tubas nickering. The canvas blinds were down. He complimented her body and no one had ever done that before—your hair, your hips, I watch you all the time, what is it with you? Look what you do to me, he said. She was twenty-two and still a virgin, still innocent of what it might mean not to be a virgin. She wasn’t smart that way, but she knew it. Other girls were focused on getting the kind of attention that would result in hearts, flowers, rings, lace, wedding almonds, trips to the resort in French Lick. The whole kit-and-kaboodle, her mother called it. What they’d lost when her father left.

    Jenny had a defect: a scar above her lip. When she was three years old, she had whirled dizzily in the living room, lost her balance, and struck the coffee table corner. Her father and mother, together, had whisked her to the emergency room at St. E’s, where an old doctor with whiskey-breath did a sloppy job sewing her up. Every night she rubbed a cream used by women with stretch marks on the scar, willing it to go away. But it was still there, leathery, prickled, the size of a baby butter bean. He had not kissed her because of the scar, she felt sure.

    Father Rickie was more interested in her admission of not going to Mass since she was thirteen. “Come tomorrow at seven-thirty,” he said. “On Ash Wednesday, get your ashes before you go to work.” For penance he told her to say five Hail Mary’s now and to come to daily Mass for a week.

    The church had emptied out. She went up to the first pew and knelt down. Were the other priests waiting somewhere for Father Rickie? And what was his life like, after hearing confessions? Father Rickie went up to the altar and blew out the candles, cupping each flame with his hands. There was a humble shape to his back, a self-denigration he had adopted, even though he was young and good-looking. She would look forward to receiving Communion from him and doing her penance.

    The altar and the sanctuary seemed to recede, lit only by a bank of lights in the rear of the church. When Father Rickie passed by, she reached out and returned his handkerchief.

    “I’ll wait in the back,” he said. “I need to lock the doors. We keep the doors locked.”

    Jenny said the prayers—she could remember the words. But even as she prayed, the memory of Eddie, what she hadn’t told Father Rickie, washed over her. How he had undressed her and she had not been ashamed. How sweaty they had been. How she had taken home-made brownies to him the next day. And the morning after that, a red lily, the only one in the crowded day lily bed on the alley behind the garage. All the others were Stella D’Ors that lit up the alley when sun struck there. She thought that surely if he appreciated the fossilized ferns in coal and the pink in granite, he would love the red lily. It was brick-red, with moist tough petals and an intricate interior. She had cut it down with a steak knife and wrapped its stem in a wet paper towel. In the geology lab, he had acted put out by her request for a vessel to put the red lily in. He had said he had a meeting. There had only been that one time when he praised her body and asked her to lie down with him on the army surplus blanket he kept in the lab cupboard, even though he visited her office every week and ate the miniature candy bars she kept on her desk.

    She had been drunk on Eddie for years. That’s what the tears are about, Father Rickie, she wanted to say. Almost the end of grief. A broken spell.

    She stood up and genuflected in the aisle. Genuflecting, she recalled her First Communion. It was her father who had outfitted her. The rented veil. The white flats with the smooth soles. She had not thought of that since then, her father picking out the flats at the discount shoe store. He had come back for her First Communion, and he let her think it was from Ohio. Years later, she saw him from afar at the county fair with his new children, a boy and a girl. They were about to get on the Tilt-a-Whirl.

    Father Rickie waited at the back near the stone baptismal font. He walked her to the door and said, “See you tomorrow.” He touched her shoulder.

    Outside, on the church steps, she was not weary. A windless night, it had begun to snow. The church was another place to be. Father Rickie was someone to get to know. She listened to the cheerful staticky voices of the taxi drivers in the parking lot of the convenience store, talking to each other on their CBs. All things seemed new, vibrant. She could see her own house, the Christmas lights behind the grimy window. She might tell her mother about going to confession, or she might not. Her mother would have an opinion. She would never keep out of things or say, “That’s up to you.” Waverly’s upstairs apartment glowed with TV light.

    A half-block away there was a tavern with a sign in the window: HAND-SPANKED BURGERS. Two people were ducking into the tavern—like a somber painting, small-town life in winter—and she recognized them at once: Sharla and His Honor. Sharla wore a second-hand fur wrap and His Honor removed his fedora and opened the door for her. It was not a place you expected to see him. He probably thought it was ironic, taking Sharla there. He had explained irony to her. Professors went to the restaurants downtown near the courthouse, where you needed to know how to smell the cork when they brought the wine to your table.

    What had felt momentarily sweet fermented. But it was a fix you could get, going to confession, like Eddie’s city fix when he went to Chicago. She had a mean streak and at that moment she was grateful for it. She might uproot Waverly’s herbs on the kitchen sill. She might hide her mother’s menthols. A mean streak would give her something to talk about with Father Rickie, easier to confess than lust or greed. And she could predict that her mother would envy Father Rickie. She would dearly love to hear the stories, but Jenny would keep them from her. The future was all laid out. Jenny would be stuck with Sharla forever. She could see it in the way he opened the door for her. They would manage his affairs, make his travel arrangements to the theory conferences. Sharla might have his babies. She would not hurt the babies, but she would have to find a way to get back at her. Their lives would be linked by more than Sharla would ever know. Within a few days of each other, they had learned that what you want changes, and those who say never shouldn’t.

Patricia Henley is a novelist and short story writer with six published books, most recently In the River Sweet, a novel set in a small Indiana college town and Vietnam during the war. She lives on a country road outside of West Lafayette, Indiana, with her two dogs, two cats, and her husband, Kip Robisch. She is spending her fall writing a novel set in Mississippi and working for the Obama campaign.

Back to Freight Stories No. 3


Patricia Henley

Red Lily