In which Claire and Alice hash things out
“Alice? It’s Claire. I felt that our conversation ended a bit abruptly this morning, and I would really like to meet with you again, and hear what you have to say.”
“Oh, Claire, dear.” (Crap, Claire thought. She’s reverted to Church Lady Mode.) “Claire, dear, you know I always love sitting down and having a good one-on-one with you but a few things have happened and I need to have a hard conversation with my husband tonight. Let me call you tomorrow and we’ll see what kind of time each of us has.”
True to her word, Alice did call the next day, and the two agreed to have lunch at the Steel Horse Diner on Thursday. Martha flew home that day, so Claire didn’t have the opportunity to check in with her best friend who, Claire realized, was awfully good at compartmentalizing things. That’s probably why she had a secret job at the State Department.
Emma was thrilled that Bill loved her brownies, but got very quiet when Claire shared his prognosis with her.
“Mom, he’s going to die, isn’t he?”
“Yes, honey, he is. And probably before Easter.”
“Can I see him?”
“I can’t promise it, but I will do everything I can to make that happen. Gladys and Bill both love you, and I know Bill would want to see you. And after he goes, Gladys is going to need both of us.”
“Thanks, Mom. I’m going upstairs. Homework. The scourge of adolescence.”
“Away with you, then.”
Alice and Claire met at the Steel Horse Diner on Thursday at 11:30, as planned, a little early so they could get a booth and have more privacy for what Claire was sure would be a hard conversation. Sandy waved them in, and once they started talking, did not interrupt them but brought burgers and fries and iced tea. The peeing dog was nowhere to be seen.
“Alice, how are you? And before you answer, I’d like to ask one thing of you. Could you please not go into Church Lady mode? I really would like to hear from the real Alice, not the daffy baker of Prune Drop Cookies.”
Alice stared at her, and Claire wondered if she had crossed a line that she could not retreat from. But she held her ground, and Alice began.
“You put me in an awkward position, Claire. Once I knew the secret would be out, I knew that Garrett would find out that I had been lying to him for years. And that – well, I felt angry, and guilty, and incredibly worried about what he would do. I vented some steam with Bill Carr – who really is the saint of the Saints –and then I went into the sanctuary for a while and tried to pray. And then I went home.
“I took Garrett a Scotch while he watched the news, and made his favorite dinner, and agreed to let him beat me at cribbage until at last he asked me what was wrong. Actually, what he said was ‘What in the world is the matter with you?’
“I told him about the Saints. I told him I had lied to him for forty-seven years, that I was not the Church Lady Supreme who traveled around for meetings and conferences, but a spy for hope in a group of people that met in the bowels of the church and went out and did good. I told him about the Prune Drop Cookies. I told him about the bulletins. I told him about our conversation. And then I asked his forgiveness.”
“What did he say?”
“He didn’t say anything, not at first. He got up from the table and went into his study, and then came back. And he showed me his diary, recent entries that made it clear that he had known about the Saints for a good long while. He said of course I had his forgiveness, as long as he had mine for keeping the secret that he knew about my secret.
“And then he said as long as we were in the forgiving mode, perhaps I should forgive you for doing the right thing. But I think it is I who needs to ask for your forgiveness. I am sorry I stormed out yesterday. And I’m sorry I didn’t trust and respect your decision. But mostly I am sorry about the lies we thought we had to tell so that we could do some good in this world. So I suppose that what I’m trying to say is that I accept that it is time to bring the saints out of the dark and into the light, and however you choose to do that, I will stand by you.”
“Oh, Alice. Thank you.” And Claire took Alice’s hand while the French fries grew cold.
“Things are looking a little serious over here, ladies. Shall I top off the iced tea, or go get the emergency stash of bourbon?” Sandy came over with a knowing look in her eye. “And look – Dog Who Pees is back! That should lighten the mood.”
Claire and Alice had been talking long enough that the lunch crowd had dissipated, and Claire invited Sandy to join them as she told them her plan for letting the secret out. They agreed with the plan, in general, although Alice thought it might be a good idea to have Martha and Toledo and Bill Carr and Sandy at the board meeting as well.
“I’m out, ladies – Monday night’s my night off, and I’ve got square dancing which I never, ever miss. But you’ll do fine without me, although I’m sure my charm and feminine wiles might help things.”
And so it was decided: Claire would tell the board at its next meeting, and the congregation on Easter Sunday.
The next week Bill went home under hospice care, and Gladys promised on his next good day, she would have Emma come over for a visit. As luck would have it, he felt well on a Saturday, and Claire and Emma went over, brownies in hand.
“Come in, girls, come in. Bill will be so glad to see you Emma, as am I . Give me a hug because God knows I could use it. It’s pretty quiet here right now – Meri and Junie will be over later, but I asked them to give up a little time so you could have Bill all to yourselves this morning.”
“Thanks, Gladys. We appreciate it. Emma, do you want to visit Bill alone?”
“Um, no – I think I want you with me. I think I want both of you with me.”
Out of necessity, they had converted the cheery dining room into Bill’s room – the hospital bed fit nicely with space for chairs all around, and the bathroom was close. Bill was sitting up, looking frail, but warmth emanated from his smile as he saw the three women enter.
“Ah, the three Graces, coming to shower me with love.”
“Hi, Emma. How are you, kid?” And Emma welled up with tears, trying to gain control until at last she said, “I don’t want you to die.”
“Emma, I don’t want to die. I still have things I want to do, but the truth is I’m not going to get to do them. I have cancer that’s winning. And it’s terrible, but I’ve made peace with it. I wish I could make this easier for you, but I can’t.”
“Your grandparents are still alive, aren’t they?”
“Yeah. Well, my mom’s parents are still alive but, uh, I thought my dad’s parents were dead like I thought my dad was dead so I don’t have any idea if they’re alive or not but whatever, because I never knew them.”
“What makes you sad about my death?”
“That I won’t get to see you again, or bake you brownies, or watch the way you and Gladys love each other, or watch how you help my mom without her knowing it. And I’m scared that everyone else I love will die too and I’ll be all alone.”
At this point, there was not a dry eye in the dining room. They talked for a while, and Emma was reluctant to leave, knowing she probably would never see Bill again. But they ran out of things to say, and they ran out of tears, and they ran out of Kleenex. So with a long hug, Emma said goodbye, and she and Claire left.