Arthur wasn’t one to profess an extensive knowledge of the church. He limited his annual attendance to the latest and sparsest Christmas Eve service he could find, which had been the original determining factor in congregational membership when he and Becky had moved to town as a pair of fresh-faced newlyweds. Becky had bloomed where she was planted, and within two months she had found a place on the altar guild and in the choir. After a handful of disastrous dinners and awkward events, Becky’s new friends began to take her word on Arthur’s voluntary and satisfactory seclusion. A few of the smarter and more interesting individuals had even managed to befriend him once their children went through his classroom. He was reliably found at the Moose lodge or in the local hardware store. Neither place required more than a polite smile, and no one eyed his chronically dirty fingernails. Becky had understood, and he had understood her, too. She’d appreciated his interests, even if she didn’t share them, with acknowledgment of the effort he put into his work, and she practically worshiped his poorly-paid status as a teacher. In turn, he was happy that she had found a place where she felt fulfilled and useful, and he encouraged her involvement. He had no need of church, but Becky did. That was enough.
All of that left him with little practical knowledge of Bev’s life as a pastor, but the calendar hanging on the kitchen wall, marked in Becky’s textbook cursive, told him it was Palm Sunday, Easter being one week away. If Becky’s participation boom during past Holy Weeks was anything to go on, Bev was surely swamped. During her last several calls, Bev had seemed distracted, but if he steered the slow flow of conversation towards her she quickly diverted it away once more. Dark smudges under her eyes spoke for her, and yet, she had phoned last evening to confirm her regular Sunday visit. The only thing out of place was the request to forgo lunch in exchange for a short trip. Arthur had no idea what that meant, but after almost a month and a half of being restricted to his house and the small loop of a trail through his muddy backyard, he was ready to go anywhere. He had been walking with greater ease thanks to the cane from his workshop, and it had been Bev to suggest stomping through what was becoming a veritable swamp behind his house. The chance to make an escape, no matter how brief, was too good to pass up.
Arthur waited until the passenger door completed its pathetic wail of protest at having been expected to perform the function for which it was designed and closed him into Bev’s clunker of a car. He waited until she settled herself behind the wheel and reversed out of the drive. And he waited until he had identified the general trajectory of the vehicle, eliminating several options for their destination in the process.
“We’re heading west.”
Bev let out a soft mmhmm but deserted any further attempt at communication. He gave her time to collect her thoughts and offer a response, but nothing came. The lines feathering from the corners of her eyes were deeper than he remembered, and the thin set of her lips set her jaw forward in determination.
“Not much on this side of town.”
A slight twist of the neck. Arthur swallowed the pinch of annoyance that nipped at his curiosity. The companionable quiet that usually existed between them was being irritated beyond what he was comfortable with, and not knowing what had Bev so tight-lipped put him on edge. Getting away from the same four walls was enticing; allowing himself to be carted off to points unknown was not something for which he was about to volunteer.
Except, he realized, he already had.
Arthur watched the town amble past and begin to dwindle. As park followed church followed diner, the list of possibilities continued to scratch itself out until only a few residential blocks remained within the town limits. Bev had said a short trip, hadn’t she? They surely weren’t leaving town altogether. Taking another glance at her offered no further evidence of her intentions. Arthur gave himself a mental kick and cleared his throat once more.
“Unless we’re visiting someone, there isn’t much left before leaving town.”
He watched her swallow slowly and chew the inside of her cheek.
“We’re not leaving town,” she started. She seemed prepared to continue but became stuck on the words. A few more moments of silence didn’t prove any more profitable.
“Well, there’s not much town left.” The last of the houses fell away behind them, and Arthur turned back to the dash. “No one lives past that last block. There’s nothing out this way besides the empty furniture warehouse and the grav-”
Arthur’s voice faltered and died in his mouth as Bev slowed and turned the car onto a smoothly paved drive. Only then did she look at him.
“We are visiting someone,” she said gently as they passed the weather-worn metal gate holding the plaque for the Green Valley Cemetery.
As Bev maneuvered them around the curving lanes at a crawl Arthur felt the blood settle in his ears causing everything to sound as if he were underwater. The car stopped without him having been aware of how long or in which direction they had been driving within the cemetery grounds. He finally noticed they were not moving when Bev wrenched his door open. She had done so as quietly as possible, but the resulting moan of metal on metal reached through his swollen hearing to shock his brain out of its numbness.
Once she had helped him out of his seat and made sure he was steady, Bev moved to the trunk and pulled out two camping chairs and a canvas tote that sagged with a heavy weight. A larger, plastic grocery bag followed but didn’t pull on her arm with the same force. Arthur made a move for the heavy bag automatically, but Bev pulled it away and shook her head with a slight smile. Her head titled to the right.
“Over by that tree. Watch yourself. The ground’s a little uneven around the roots.”
He silently thanked Bev for refusing his help when he began to navigate his way through the damp grass. His shoes slid, and his cane sunk into the soft earth. A step ahead of him but not out of reach, Bev squelched softly in her duck boots. Arthur focused on her feet and attempted to place his own where hers had been until she finally came to a halt.
They were just out of the reaches of the tall maple and in a patch of light that warmed the back of Arthur’s neck, reminding him of Becky’s hands years before when she had rubbed the long school days out of his muscles. He lifted his face to the sun and closed his eyes, listening for her voice. He knew she would ask about the progress of a promising student or the complaints of some pesky parent, but all he heard was the whisper of breeze trip through the branches.
His eyes adjusted to the light once more and found Bev standing next to him with her arms at her sides. The posture looked forced, and he imagined she was doing her best to avoid pushing him farther with her care than he was willing to go. She held his gaze for a moment before making a small gesture behind him. When he pivoted to look, he saw that she had placed one of the chairs directly behind his legs. He was exhausted already, but if he sat, there would be no pulling himself up again to accomplish what Bev had brought him there to do. Turning again, Arthur attempted to lift his face to hers.
“Where is she?”
Bev bent and hefted the cloth bag once more. Straightening, she raised her other arm in front of them.
“Just beyond the tree.”
She led him to a plot where the ground hadn’t settled completely, the first tufts of grass just reaching into the brown mound that covered Becky. The temporary marker at the top was faded and rather spartan. Arthur felt shame at having forgotten to arrange for a permanent one. He stared at the piece of the world that held his wife and wondered how it could seem so small. His Becky had been the most passionate debater, the fiercest friend, and had possessed the largest heart he had ever known. To have six feet of plain ground contain all that was left of her made his mind burn.
“I have something for you, but it can wait if you’d rather…”
He had forgotten Bev again but was more than happy to pull himself away from the tears that drained down the back of his tongue.
Bev pulled the tote off her shoulder and set it at the foot of Becky’s grave. She spoke as she reached past the handles into the bag and stood to press the contents into his hands.
“Two things, really, but here’s the first.”
In his arms rested a plain rectangular package of Saltines with an adhesive red bow pressed on the side.
“She gave a box like this to me on my first Sunday here. Said you used to need them too.” Bev glanced guiltily toward the plot. “She also said I shouldn’t ever tell you she said that. Sorry, Becky.”
Arthur felt the sting in his eyes again, but all that came out was a muttered, “Son of a—”
Bev cleared her throat and reached for the bag again as he finished his sentence. When he looked up from the crackers, she held the canvas tote in one hand and a fist full of gravel in the other.
“What the hell is that?”
Since she didn’t immediately answer, Arthur examined the rubble and lifted a larger piece from the pile. The conical shape curved up every so slightly to a pointed end, giving the thing a lopsided appearance. It rolled between his fingers until it sat horizontally in his grip. He wasn’t sure if it was his brain or his healing hip that recognized the image first. Holding the fragment in front of his face, he glanced at Bev.
Bev’s cheeks were just a shade more pink than usual, but her chin was leveled at him when she stated simply, “I took the liberty.”
He smoothed his thumb over the tip of the stone beak before returning it to the smaller chunks Bev held. Several other pieces still sported some of their original smooth lines indicating a wing or foot, and Arthur tried to reconstruct what he saw.
“The damn doves.”
When he saw her confirming nod, something tightened in his gut. His chest constricted; his face stretched. Before he could suppress it, an unfamiliar bark escaped from him and traveled loudly across the undisturbed cemetery. His shoulders shook as weeks of tension released themselves through a rattling laugh that continued to rasp past what he would have normally considered decent. It certainly continued past the point where he could easily breathe and well beyond the point of tears. He began to choke and received a few hearty slaps across his back from Bev. When he could draw in air again, he wiped his face enough to see the concern on her features as she kept thumping his lungs into submission.
“O-okay. I’m okay.” A childish grin tugged at his mouth. “But next time, could you drop the rest of the birds first?”
He watched her turn to the arm that reached out behind him and saw the alarm in her eyes when she realized the offending bag of rocks was still hanging from her elbow. The look was so mortified that another fit of laughter bubbled up his spine and out his long nose. The panic let go of Bev’s face until her own lips strained under the effort of keeping a neutral expression, which only made Arthur convulse all the more. She wagged her head at him, and her face struggled before splitting into a smirk of resignation.
“You don’t mind?”
“Only that I couldn’t have done it myself.”
Bev’s relief was visible.
“In that case, you’ll be glad to hear I have the rest of the ugly little beasts lined up in my garage awaiting demolition.”
It took several more minutes before either party could get themselves under control. Only when Arthur felt his head begin to spin and his knees weaken did he give a final sigh and draw a shirt cuff across his upper lip. He figured Bev must have seen the blood leave his face, because she placed a hand on his shoulder and after an assessing look, jogged to fetch the camping chair from its place under the maple. Once Arthur was settled, she retrieved the remaining chair and bag before rejoining him.
Arthur sat quietly until Bev began to uncork a bottle produced from the grocery sack.
“Am I allowed to have alcohol with the meds I’m on?”
She threw a look at him, her eyebrows threatening to leap across and smack him in the face, but she kept her voice innocent as she handed him a small plastic cup filled halfway with red wine.
“Are you telling me you’ve actually been taking your meds?”
He took the cup from her with a muttered, “Fair enough.”
Bev poured a drink for herself and took a sip before adding, “Besides, it’s the leftover communion wine. This stuff isn’t strong enough to make a squirrel tipsy.”
Arthur’s snort was unfortunately timed as he had just brought the cup to his mouth. The resulting spray spotted his trousers and sprinkled the edges of Becky’s grave. Bev simply handed him a paper towel extracted from somewhere about her person and reached for the box of Saltines Arthur had deposited next to his chair. When she offered an open sleeve of crackers to him, he grunted his acceptance. The growing appreciation he felt snagged on his teeth and wouldn’t come out.
“Becky would have liked this,” he finally managed. Beside him, Bev smiled mildly and wordlessly raised her plastic cup in salute to the vivacious woman who lay silently at their feet.
Bev wasn’t one to profess an extensive knowledge of woodworking. Her limited experience with power tools started and ended with the leaning bookshelf in her office that was anything but structurally sound. It only remained upright thanks to its location in the corner of the small room, supported by the cement block walls on two sides. Despite the safety hazard she had let the precarious monstrosity remain standing behind her desk, away from where any stray children or elderly congregants might roam. She considered it a reminder of her own limitations and comforted herself regularly that if it fell while she was at work, the only one in danger of being crushed by the rows of New Testament commentaries, Greek lexicons, and countless un-cracked bibles that had been gifted to her over the last two years would be herself.
All of that left her with very little practical knowledge of Arthur’s life as shop teacher and woodworker, but the traces of sawdust in his hairline the day they had visited Becky’s grave had told her he was working again. There was no telling how long he had been at it. Her visits had been fewer and her attention strained. Until she sat next to him for several hours sipping overly sweet wine and munching plain crackers at their funeral do-over she hadn’t been conscious of how much progress he had made in his recovery. They had spent the afternoon trading memories of Arthur’s wife and spreading gravel or crumbs around her makeshift nameplate. He had dozed when his energy waned, and Bev rested beside him watching the wind move the shadows from the tree branches. For the first time in days, she realized, she had sat still.
That had been a week ago. She’d seen Arthur once since then, but the visit had been short. It was now Easter morning, and the last seven days had been full to brim. The council was no closer to resolving their conflicts, and the chairman’s blood pressure had landed him a place on the prayer list, a gesture of concern he resented. To prove that prayers on his behalf were unnecessary, he fully refused to lessen his pestering about the plans to promote the church until she was sure one or both of them would have a heart attack.
She had driven to the church before dawn, having been unable to sleep much of the night anyway. The hours between her arrival and that of the earliest blue-haired members to their customary pews, were spent wandering around blindly, barely aware of her surroundings as she habitually adjusted the arrangements the altar guild had made the day before and re-copied the bulletin inserts that featured only half of the printed announcements.
It was not her finest day as a pastor, and she knew it. She felt disappointed in herself while moving through the service she had spent so much time all week trying to make meaningful. Her exhaustion and frustration kept her so focused on the task at hand that it wasn’t until she was giving the final benediction that she noticed someone sitting alone in the narthex with the rest of the congregation standing between them. Before she could identify the individual, the assembly had said their “amen”s and “thanks-be-to-God”s and had begun to sing the last hymn. Bev turned to the chancel and lowered her head before swiveling back to walk up the aisle. The sitting figure reached for a cane that rested close by and slowly rose.
Arthur Fenn stood at the back of the church in his pleated khakis and plaid button-down looking exceptionally uncomfortable with his surroundings.
Before Bev had made it half way to him, she saw the council chairman make a bee-line from his pew to where Arthur stood like a deer caught in the path of a pickup. She watched the chairman pump Arthur’s hand and heard him loudly express his greeting, the sound carrying over the last verse being sung around her.
“Arthur Fenn, what a pleasure. Don’t often see you here when it’s not Christmas. Would love to ask you a question or two.”
Bev picked up her pace, wondering when the tiny rural church had lengthened its aisle without her noticing. The old, electric organ finished the final chord and paused before starting the postlude. Several heads were craning to find the source of the distraction.
“—trying to make the building more appealing. Grow membership, you know. You’re someone who doesn’t darken a church door if they don’t have to. What do you think will change the minds of folks like you?”
Arthur looked at her hurrying down last few feet between them and back at the chairman, his expression a blank.
“Arthur, I—” Bev was still too far away to make a full intervention, but she practically threw herself at the pair only to have Arthur stop her short. His voice wasn’t loud or forceful, but it carried in the now-silent church.
“Frankly, a fancier door doesn’t mean I’m more likely to darken it.”
Bev watched the color rise in the chairman’s cheeks. Before he could comment, Arthur continued, raising his voice to a level she had never heard from him.
“There’s only one way you’re going to get ‘folks like me’ in here,” his eyes met Bev’s, and she watched him incline his head in her direction. “People like her.”
He looked calmly and squarely at the chairman, forming the complete antithesis of the chairman imploding in front of him. Arthur’s voice remained gruff, but Bev identified the mischievous grin tugging at a corner of his mouth and caught the sparkle in his eye.
“Hell, she’s already doubled my church attendance for the year.”
Bev nearly bit off her tongue when he subtly winked at her before heading for the door, throwing out his final words as he left.
“See you at lunch, Pastor Wallis. I believe I have one more dish from Mrs. Denham hiding in the freezer.”
Bev was dimly aware of the chairman beginning to sputter, the tittering of the congregation behind her, and the organ attempting, then abandoning the effort to drown them all out. Her blurred vision traveled to where Arthur had sat during the service, making out the tall slats and sloping arms of a finished cherry settee against the plain blocks of the back wall. Bev felt her face crack as she read the small metal plate affixed in the middle of the high curving rail.
IN MEMORY OF REBECCA FENN
IN GRATITUDE FOR PASTOR BEVERLY WALLIS
“Son of a—”
Bev heard the congregation erupt behind her as she finished her sentence.
In memory of and gratitude for the life of Sandra K Strietelmeier