by Kathleen J. Woods
Lauren fumbled with her bike lock. Under her helmet, her scalp itched with sweat and cold. She wiped the snot from her face and walked towards the entrance of the rectory, a tan, crouching building next to the church. She sneered at the life-sized Mary standing in the front garden. Hail Mary, carved from wood. Blessed art thou among women.
She paused at the doorway, the place where that man had stood not long ago, asking for gas money. But that happened all the time-–beggars or scammers coming to seek charity from the Church. Lauren had been told to politely send them on their way. She hadn’t expected one to refuse.
The rectory lobby was too warm, with the rusty orange smell of old heaters. Lauren yanked at her scarf, panting. She had biked quickly to compensate for time spent arguing with Sam. She was learning how to run red lights.
“I have to go in,” she’d said. “It’s been a week.”
He brought his arm around her, pulling her across the sheets to his chest. “You could take a month.”
“We need the money,” she said, rubbing his knuckles. His fingernails were chipped like slate.
“Not that badly. You went through something traumatic.”
“Nothing even happened,” she said.
“You had a gun pulled on you. That’s something.”
Lauren sat up and swung her legs to the floor. Their apartment had grown messy, she noticed, cluttered like the inside of a trunk. She hunched over her knees, her naked back brailling in the room’s chill.
“At least don’t bike. You’re too shaken up.”
“I’m fine. Really.” She turned and put her thumb on his chin. “I love you, okay?”
Lauren wondered when she’d started adding that “okay?” It seemed to have appeared on its own, rising up out of something tight in her throat.
She sat at her desk and began clicking a pen. Her office was small and bare, an afterthought of architecture thrown next to the rectory’s foyer, beneath the priests’ dormitory footsteps. The pastor and the deacon worked in offices across the hall with large wooden desks and glass paperweights. She had a chair that stuck mid-swivel and an ancient PC that whirred like a teakettle. Sam’s mother, the choir director, had connected her to the secretary job, hoping to remedy her lack of faith and employment in one move, and Lauren had accepted out of desperation. While Sam was imagining sets for larger and larger theaters, her degree in design was leading to nothing steady. Nothing safe. Nothing as docile and certain as answering phones in the home of old men in white collars.
Perhaps she should feel more troubled by the memory of the mugger, she thought. She had been frightened, of course. She had never had a gun pointed at her before. Once she’d held one, shooting at soda cans on her grandparents’ land in the country. Aluminum casualties.
Lauren set the pen down, pressing it into the desk as though the wood would absorb the plastic. She would not think about this. She would stuff the parish bulletins. She would take out the priests’ trash. She would set their table for dinner, mindful to include the various salad dressings favored by each. She would not think about the man with the gun.
She leapt at a rapping on the office doorway. Deacon Brian stood over her, tall and fair and solemn. He had the thin nose, lean limbs, and wide gray eyes of an Irishman. She watched his fingers rest against the doorframe.
“How are you, Lauren? Feeling alright?” he said, his voice booming through the silent hallway.
“Yes, thanks. How are you?”
“Doing better everyday, thanks to the grace of God,” he said and chuckled, glancing out the door. His face grew serious. He stepped forward and she rose to meet him. He bent his thin face over hers and kissed her, deep and quick, like a splash of water over her cheeks.
“Lauren, really, how are you?” he whispered. His wide hand gripped her shoulder.
“I’m not thinking about it.”
“That’s probably best.” He kissed her again. “I missed you. Come to my office in twenty minutes.”
She’d never meant to take Deacon Brian for a lover. She liked his wife, who was always calling to ask what he wanted for dinner, or when he would be home. These conversations troubled Lauren. They made her picture Brian at his dinner table, saying grace while holding his children’s hands over plates of lasagna. This too, she would not think about.
But he was handsome, in the way of pale, angular men. And, in her first month there, he would talk to her as she cleared his wastebasket.
“Lauren, sweet, why don’t I see you and Sam at church?”
“Well, we don’t really go.”
The Deacon nodded gravely. “Why not, may I ask?”
“I never could get all of those prayers straight. When to stand, when to sit, when to kneel. It just baffles me.”
He smirked. “I see. However, all things can be learned with discipline. Something I hope you possess.”
He started to remark on her appearance. “You look tired, Lauren. That Samuel keeping you up at night?” or “Are you a runner? You have such muscular legs.”
She never had anything to say to these comments. Just a tight smile, a muffled, blushing “Thank you.” Seeing him brought a seizing to her chest, as though she was built up of taut elastic rather than blood and tissue. She found herself wearing blouses with lower cuts, skirts with shorter hems. Once, as she swept in the kitchen, he’d placed his hand on her lower back, fingers grazing the back pockets of her jeans.
“Excuse me, just sliding by,” he’d said, walking past.
And then, a few weeks later, he’d asked her to proofread a letter. As she leaned over the computer screen, he began tracing the stitching of her sweater, up and down her side, like a line of ants unsure of their direction. She stopped his hand at her breast.
Afterwards, she’d zipped her skirt, collected her things, and returned home to make curry with Sam.
Now, two months later, Lauren glanced at the box of church bulletins. For twenty minutes, she would prepare them for tomorrow’s Sunday mass, slipping the weekly newsletter inside like a puppet tongue. The task irritated her fingertips. Page after page gradually impressed a dusty residue into her hands. She read the announcements quickly as she worked–bible readings, prayer gatherings for the grieving, support groups for divorce-–all accompanied by appropriate clip-art. Deacon Brian had written a column about community security. She wondered if he just meant locks on doors.
Lauren’s phone buzzed across her desk with Sam’s name on the screen. She pressed “end call” and looked at her phone in confusion, as though it had hung up on him by itself. She picked it up and dialed again.
“Hi, sorry. I was just finishing another call,” she said.
“That’s okay. I wanted to check in. You didn’t text me when you got to work.”
“I forgot. And I told you, I’m fine.”
“And I told you I think you’re full of shit. So I’m also calling to ask you to join me after work for a candlelit dinner in the restaurant of your choice,” he said.
“Sam, we can’t afford that right now,” she said. “Remember, we promised to cook until I find a real job.”
“But I have a real job at a real theater. And you’ve been through a lot this week. So now I want to take you to dinner. We’ll split a bottle of wine.”
“I don’t think it’s a good idea. We can’t just start making all these exceptions.”
He paused. “Fine. Whatever you want.” His voice drooped with resignation.
Lauren pressed her palm against her forehead. “I’m sorry, Sam. It was a nice idea.”
“I have to get back to work. I’ll see you at home later, okay?”
Lauren sighed. She might have enjoyed wine. Sam. She’d said his name too many times in the short conversation, repeating it as though to remind herself that she knew it.
Twenty minutes had long passed. Lauren straightened the bulletins and stood. Sam had no suspicions about Deacon Brian. He knew him, knew his family. He was even grateful to him for overhearing the gunman and calling the police. And Sam trusted Lauren completely, firmly, supported by two years of promises, a lease bearing both of their names. She loved him. The deacon playing her lover was too absurd to imagine. It wasn’t real, Lauren thought. In this still and stagnant building, it wasn’t real at all.
Brian sat as his desk, typing. With his reading glasses resting on the tip of his nose, he looked like a much older man. He peered at her over them, eyebrows raised.
“You’re late,” he said.
“I’m sorry. I was on the phone.” She approached his desk.
“No one. Some one asking for directions,” she said.
Brian removed his glasses. He stood and took her hand, pulling her to his side of the desk. She sat on it slowly. The edge dug into her thighs.
“And what did you tell them?” he said, unbuttoning her blouse.
“Just what they asked for.”
“Of course.” He unclasped her bra. “And when should I expect them?”
“Any moment now.”
The rest of Lauren’s clothing fell away. Deacon Brian slipped his tongue over hers, tugging at his belt. He held her wrists and pressed her hands into the desk. She wrapped her legs around his back.
They’d been just here that day when the doorbell rang. She remembered sliding him out of her, fumbling for clothing, running to the door with her bra twisted beneath her shirt. She could still see the man, the man asking for gas money, explaining about his pregnant wife in the car a few blocks away. She remembered the strange lumps on his left hand, like marbles under his skin. And then the gun in the other, pushing her inside, demanding money, the church has so much money, where was it? And Brian here, moving inside her, and then, behind her in the entryway, walking quickly with arms raised, voice so calm. She saw the gun aimed at her face, the marble fingers trembling, the man’s eyes bright with anger and fear. She felt the charge through her chest like a round of bullets, the sweat at the base of her spine. She tightened her legs and lifted her hips. Brian moaned, back arching. She dug her nails into the desk.
He sighed and pulled back. Lauren lowered her legs to the floor.
“I’m going home early today,” Brain said, tucking his shirt back into his pants. “So if anyone calls with something urgent, tell them to reach me there.”
Lauren nodded, arms crossed over her bare chest. “Of course.”
He handed her her bra, folded like a clam. “I’m going to pour myself a cup of coffee. Get dressed, wait five minutes, then walk to your office.”
“Okay,” she said. “I’ll bring your mail once it’s sorted.”
When she crossed the silent hallway, Lauren wondered if the priests ever heard them. Maybe they felt a slight shaking underneath. Maybe their crosses rattled on their walls.
Lauren lay in bed, holding Sam’s hand. He slept with his lips parted. They had eaten Pad Thai made from cardboard packages and had sex with the taste of peanuts in their mouths. He’d read to her from the play he was working on, his voice rising and falling into little boys in school shorts and old women with withered lips. He’d begun construction on the wood panels that would be their houses.
She pulled the comforter up to their chins. She listened to the street outside their window. A garbage truck rumbled by. A man yelled about basketball. In the morning they would burrow in blankets and listen to the neighbors banging upstairs. They would watch the news. There would be scandals and shootings and hurricanes, and none of it would be real.
Kathleen J. Woods is an M.F.A. candidate in Creative Writing from the University of Colorado at Boulder, where she also teaches and serves as the assistant editor of Timber Journal. Her work has appeared or is forthcoming in Bartleby Snopes, Paragraphiti, Paper Tape, Vannevar FortyFour, Cavalcade Literary Magazine, and others.
(photo found on grigiabot.tumblr.com)