In which Claire does nothing
New Year’s Eve, New Year’s Day, Epiphany, Baptism of the Lord Sunday, and the celebration of Martin Luther King, Jr.’s birthday came and went, and Claire kept her mouth shut all those weeks. She led worship, of course, and talked with Emma and Martha, with Bill and Gladys, with Trystene, and with the heating guy since the furnace at home was a bit tempermental. But about the truth in Martha’s accusation she said nothing.
She was grateful that the Saints of Francis had curtailed their mischievous ways. The Prune Drop cookies showed up twice in January, but there seemed to be a truce about the bulletin. As this did not put Trystene’s job in jeopardy, nor call into question her own integrity, Claire decided to let secret saints lie. She did not go back to any of their meetings. Neither she nor any of the other women (or men) at church gave Toledo Vader a second glance any longer. How quickly we accept beauty as everyday, Claire thought, musing on her best friend’s former fiancé. The chair of the Evangelism Committee tried mightily to persuade Toledo to join the church, but he purred at her that in his deepest heart he hoped soon to return to his beloved Spain, and he could not make the commitment.
One Sunday night, after the Prune Drop cookies had made an appearance at coffee hour, Claire fell asleep quickly. In the wee cruel hours of the morning she awoke from a dream. Trystene was in it, but her normally flat straight hair was teased out into a malevolent halo. She wore a sundress with a pattern of kiwis all over it. She stood in Claire’s doorway with the dog from the diner on one side and Rex on the other, and she pointed at Claire hissing, “Liar! Liar!”
Claire woke up in a cold sweat. Martha’s accusation had wormed its way into her subconscious and Claire had hoped to keep it there. That week the dream came back, twice. Finally she called Martha.
“Hi, sweetie, how are you? Tired of the rain yet?”
“Well, a little. Rex hates to get wet so the morning and evening constitutionals have been a little challenging. But there’s a coziness that comes with the rain.”
“Yeah, well, I’ll take snow over rain any day. How’s Emma?”
“She’s good, taking driver’s ed, God help us. But listen, I wanted to talk with you about that. About what you said when we were at your house. About her dad.”
“I’m all ears.”
“So all this time I’ve been telling myself it would be easier on her for her to think her dad died. The truth might devastate her. I want to keep her from that.”
“Okay, I get that. But what if she finds out? What if some day a letter arrives in the mail, or she get IM’d, or worse, he shows up on your doorstep? What happens then? Would it be worse for her to know that her dad abandoned the two of you, or that you had lied to her all these years?”
“I think it would be worse for her to know he walked out on us. I’m willing to take my chances on his never showing up again.”
“Okay, so let me ask you this: when will Emma be old enough to figure out these things, to get hurt and get healed without your help?”
“I don’t know. I just know not yet.”
“So Toledo’s been in church….”
That night Claire did not dream about Kiwi Trystene. Instead she dreamed of Emma, sitting in front of the boiler at the church, a mound of Prune Drop cookies in front of her. She looked so sad and lost. People kept walking by her – people Claire knew, people Claire didn’t know. They walked by Emma and went to the tunnels, ignoring the girl. When Claire woke up, she felt heartbroken and angry. She tiptoed upstairs to check on her daughter. Fast asleep, with Rex curled up at her feet. Claire went back to bed and pretended to sleep until her alarm went off.
It was Thursday, when she stayed home in the morning to write her sermon. By 11:00 she had made a good start, so she went into the office.
“Good morning, Trystene. What have I missed?”
“Hi, Claire. Gladys called and she made me promise not to call you at home, but Bill is back in the hospital. He’s having trouble breathing again and they think he might have pneumonia.”
“Oh, no. Did she leave his room number?”
“She said she knew you would want to come by but it would be better if you could wait till tomorrow when things are a little more settled. She said they would appreciate prayers today and a visit tomorrow, maybe after Emma gets home from school.”
Claire went into her office, sat at her desk, and put her head in her hands. After a few minutes, she heard a tap at the door.
“Claire, do you have a moment, or did I catch you at a bad time?” Bill Carr asked.
“No, Bill, it’s fine. Come on in. Trystene just told me that Bill Hill is back in the hospital.”
“I’m sorry to hear that. It’s not looking good, is it?”
“No, it really isn’t. But what can I help you with?”
“Mostly I wanted to see how you are.”
“How I am?”
“Are you asking as the church sexton or as one of the Saints?”
“I’m asking as one human being to another. You’ve looked a little tired lately, and I thought I’d see if you’re okay.”
Claire stared at the man. There was still so much that was a mystery about him. Why was he a church sexton? How did he live out his responsibility as one of the Saints of Francis? Did he have a family? Did he live simply, or did he come from money?
But really the question in her heart was, could she trust him?
“There’s something I want to ask you about in the sanctuary, Bill.”
As they left the office, she told Trystene that she and Bill would be wandering the building.
“Doing Bill Hill’s monthly maintenance check? He’d be happy to know that.”
When they reached the sanctuary, Claire motioned Bill to sit down, as she did.
“I thought it would be easier to talk without worrying about Trystene overhearing us.”
“So Bill, these last seven months have been wonderful in many ways and agonizing in others. I love this congregation. There are fantastic people here who are really trying to live out their faith, who come here to find encouragement and challenge and friendship. They are so kind to Emma and me. There are days when I think I could retire from this place.
“But I am absolutely torn about the Saints. I try to imagine what people would do if they knew about you and your clandestine deeds of good. Would they be enraged? Would they demand you cease and desist? Would they throw me out for covering it up? Would they join the secret? Would they be proud that their church harbored angel spies?
“You know the dishonesty and subterfuge of the entire operation does not sit well with me. But over Christmas, when Emma and I visited Martha, Martha reminded me that I am complicit in my own subterfuge. For most of Emma’s life, I have told her and everyone else that her father died when she was an infant. The truth is that he left us. She doesn’t know that. Martha has challenged me to think about the reasons I have lied to the person dearest to me in the world. It’s made me think about the lying you all do, to people you love and to people you help. I’m unsettled about it and I’m not sleeping well. So that’s how I am, in case you’re still wondering.”
Bill looked at her. “Claire, I don’t know what it’s like to be a parent. I’ve had one serious relationship in my adult life, but he died before we were able to adopt our own kids. He died – yes, the love of my life was a man and yes, he really did die, a sudden death. He had an aneurism, and there was no time for a last ‘I love you’ or goodbye. So I don’t know what it is to raise a child, though we had wanted to. I have no words of advice. But I am willing to listen if you ever need someone to talk to.”
“Bill, I am so sorry. I didn’t know.”
“Not many do. We hid our relationship from my family and now most of them are gone too.”
They sat there for a while in the sanctuary. It was raining, and they hadn’t turned the lights on, but still the stained glass windows glowed. St. Francis caught Claire’s eye – the simple man who renounced so much to serve the God he loved.
“I think you’re still making up your mind about the Saints, Claire, and I’m okay with that. I trust you will do the right thing, whatever that is. If you feel you need to tell people about us, then maybe it’s time we came out of the tunnels. I don’t know. What I do know is that the work I do here and the work I do for the Saints helps to fill some of the sense of loss I have. It will never fill all the emptiness. But it helps.”
They sat for a while in the silence.
“Beautiful windows, aren’t they?” Bill commented.
“Yes, they are. I always find the one that catches my eye on any given day is the one who brings me comfort somehow. Today it’s Francis. I wonder why.”
“I’m sure you’ll figure it out.”