Fourth Week of Advent
After receiving a phone call, Charles drove fifteen miles to the hospital in Maquoketa. Lillian had been under observation without any serious injuries, although she remained in a state of confusion. The attending physician would not release her without someone to accompany her.
Parting the curtain from around her bed in the emergency room, Charles found Lillian peaceful, her eyes closed as she breathed steadily through a mask.
“Lil?” She opened her eyes. “Are you all right?” He squeezed her arm. “The nurse told me there was a fire. I’m so glad you’re all right.”
Charles turned to greet a young doctor. The woman’s brisk strides brought her to his side where she shook his hand. “Doctor Wendt. Ms. McKenney is very lucky. The house had no smoke detectors. A few minutes more, and she may have had serious injuries. She has some bronchial irritation from smoke, but we’re not seeing significant swelling. She’s been rather confused–knows who she is but has been going on about angels. I’d like to watch her for another hour before discharging her. I understand she has no family. Is there a place she can stay?”
Trying to make sense of the doctor’s rapid summary, he stuttered before saying, “Of course she can stay at the rectory. Was the house destroyed?”
“I think so, though I only overheard the sheriff talking to fire rescue. I’m not sure if any of them are still around.” The doctor commented again how lucky Lillian was, before leaving them alone.
Charles pulled up a chair, sat, and rested his hands on Lillian’s arm as he offered a silent prayer. He noticed she was watching him. “Would you like to pray together?”
When her eyelids drooped, he squeezed her arm and settled in to wait.
Charles watched Lillian carefully for any sign of anxiety. She had not stepped away from her home in over fifteen years, so he assumed she would be unable to function, especially after having everything taken away so violently and so permanently.
But she quite methodically did all she was told, although she remained subdued. She wore scrubs and sneakers given her by a sympathetic nurse, the oversized clothing only adding to her pitiable appearance. He thought of offering her a soothing bath, but decided she needed sleep more.
He showed her to a room on the second floor of the rectory, stopping first at a closet and scooping up sheets and a blanket. Her new room was hardly bigger than the full-size bed, desk, and dresser inside and was heated by a steam radiator that created condensation on the window. Walnut stained woodwork contrasted sharply with white-textured walls. A small double-hung window, also framed in walnut, appeared painted shut where the white ledge met the old sash.
Charles made the bed and fluffed the pillow. “You should get more rest, and I’ll see what I can do about getting some clothes that fit you. The bathroom is down the hall, and I’ll leave towels there for you. Nothing fancy, you know.”
She crawled under the blanket, and he stood for a time at the door, wondering how she felt, until he heard someone knocking around on the first floor. He closed her door and made his way downstairs to find Raphael setting a large box on the couch in the den. The pungent smell of burnt plastic filled the air.
“This is all that survived. No clothes, I’m afraid, but Sister Melinda was bringing some from Maquoketa. All I have here are some books, a paperweight, coffee mugs, a few records.” He pulled out a white cardboard album cover, edge worn to gray, and tipped it until a black-vinyl record rolled into his hand. “This room is probably the only place in the county where an album can be played.” He set the record player’s needle onto the middle of the spinning vinyl.
Charles was intrigued by the sound–unfamiliar, though his trained ear could tell the era clearly. The piano was brooding and nostalgic; it was Romantic and probably Russian. “Who is it?”
“Mussorgsky. This song is Reverie.”
From his reading, Charles knew the piece. He wondered why Lillian had never mentioned owning it.
“The composer wrote this after his mother died,” said Raphael, “but it’s been preserved with his Crimean music. He was a resentful alcoholic and rarely finished what he started. He wanted to relate art to common experiences and believed form and content are opposites, but those who finished his work did not. Such is the trouble with allowing others to speak for you. This intimate tone-poem became an ode to nationalism.”
Charles watched the door long after Raphael had left, wondering if the strangely intense man was making a point. The album continued to play repeatedly the rest of the afternoon, while Charles sat in his office across the hall completing paperwork.
Early in the evening as he was working on his Christmas homily, he sensed a presence and looked up to see Lillian standing at his door. She held her white blanket wrapped around her.
“How are you feeling?” He left his desk.
“What are you listening to?”
“I’m afraid there was only one box of your things that survived the fire.”
She followed him into the den, and he brought the box to her.
“It’s not mine.” Her jaw flexed.
“I’ll turn it off.”
“No. Let it play. This was one of his favorites.” She tightened the blanket around her. “Music can change the color of the day, can’t it? It was all orange this morning.”
“What color is it now?”
She had told him very little about her family and usually bristled at any questions. “Odd for a boy to like classical.”
“He played the violin. My father loved symphonies, so we heard them all the time.”
“Ah, then you know more than you let on.”
“Not really. I preferred the radio and made fun of Lew–a little old man stuck inside a boy’s body.”
Her eyes shone as she spoke about her family, so Charles encouraged her with more questions. “What about your mother?”
“She liked anything you could dance to. She had this Petula Clark record she would play over and over. When we were little, she taught us the words to ‘Downtown.’ She died when I was ten.”
“How old was Lew?”
“Fourteen.” Her smile faded. “Without Mom to calm things down, Lew and Dad just got worse and worse. They argued all the time. Dad got red-faced once and hit him, said he lost his wife and nothing was bad as that. Lew threw a chair through the window and said he lost his mother and that was worse. They spent the next four years arguing about who Mom hurt more by dying.” Lillian lost her breath. She pressed her hand to her chest and bent forward as she began to cry. “I guess Lew won.”
He took her in his arms. As he stroked her hair, she buried her face in his shoulder, and the more she cried, the more tightly he held her.
Her crying deepened as twenty-years of grief seemed to well up at once. “Everything hurts. Oh my God, everything hurts.” He felt her wet tears through his shirt and found it difficult to understand much of what she said until she sobbed, “Why does everything have to hurt so much?”
He wanted to tell her everything would be all right, but he was not sure it would. He wanted to tell her he loved her, but he was not sure that would comfort her. He found he had no answer, so he simply held her, thinking that maybe in the silence, she would find her own.
After her crying slowed and her gentle shaking stilled, her grip on him eased. She looked up at him, her eyes bloodshot and puffy, the radiant green dulled with pain. “I don’t know what I’m going to do.”
“That makes two of us. I mean…” Only he was not sure what he meant. “All we can do is hold onto our faith.”
“I guess it’s about all I have left.”
After he tucked several curly strands behind her ear, he surrendered to his compulsion, touching his lips to hers. The unfamiliar impress of her skin startled him, and his heart raced. He worried that this was not at all what she wanted and drew back. “Is this all right?” She offered no reply and waited for him to continue.
He was on fire. A place inside him burned like a cut so new, he was not sure how deep it went. Nor was he sure why he hurt when he also felt such elation.
Regret began to dawn on him, a regret he did not expect and no one ever talked about, not in all the love poetry he had ever read. As he trespassed this threshold, admitting his love and pursuing his desire, there at the heart of his devotion was a small but undeniable sadness. His nature had brought him into this profession, one that dealt with issues of life and death, purpose and meaning on a daily basis, so perhaps it was not unusual that, as a new hunger for life awakened every nerve in his body, he experienced with painful certainty that he would one day lose her forever.
“We’ve wasted so much time,” he whispered as he kissed her again.
She seemed to know what he was thinking and held him tighter.
As they kissed, they bumped and tangled until they finally submerged entirely beneath her blanket, and not until Raphael cleared his throat did they realize they were not alone. Charles stared up at him from the couch, blinking away the erotic fog that had him trying to remember where he was. Lillian found clarity much sooner. She leapt to her feet, taking the blanket with her as she raced upstairs. When Raphael took a seat on the far end of the couch, Charles braced himself for an argument.
“They haven’t found anything else. The rest is a total loss, but she should be able to count on some insurance money. She could rebuild. Do you think she will?” Raphael nodded as if Charles had answered, though he said nothing. “You can expect her to be insecure. She’s dealing with a lot, as you can imagine.” He rose to leave and pointed across the room at the pine standing in the corner. “That’s going to be a nice Christmas tree.”
“That’s it?” Charles demanded, rising to his feet, fighting a shaky feeling in his knees. “You’re not going to make a comment about what you saw?”
Raphael paused at the den’s entryway for a moment. “Maybe just that you should take things slowly.” He nodded as if satisfied with his remark before retiring to his room for the night.
Copyright © 2006 Teresa Wymore. All Rights Reserved.