Churchgoing in New England

by Richard Greenhorn

Though the Newltons summered most regularly on Cape Cod or in the Berkshires, their “cottage” was located alongside the Connecticut River in Deerfield, Massachusetts, a town generally of no interest to vacationers but for the handful of weeks in October when the leaves became beautiful just before they died. Mrs. Newlton’s family had owned the cottage since the 1830s, when her forebears had farmed the land surrounding. Mrs. Newlton herself, as a child, had nicknamed itthe Sabbath,” by virtue of its being a place of rest. Mrs. Newlton claimed she did her best illustrating in Deerfield, and Mr. Newlton believed he couldn’t “properly unwind” without at least three days spent within the cottage’s walls per month. For the Newlton children, the cottage was the very incarnation of youth itself, and the three of them had to wonder how anyone could properly “be a kid” without a Deerfield cottage of their own. Their hours at the Sabbath had nurtured their curiosity, driven their creativity, toned their muscles in the waters of nearby streams and refined their color palates on the autumn foliage. The cottage had fulfilled such an integral role in the development of their morals and persons that, like Christians among Pagans, they had to wonder how anyone could be complete without having something akin to the Sabbath.

The Newltons invited Peter to the cottage in late March, after he’d been dating Emmy for two months. The weekend before, in Peter’s presence, Emmy had been talking on the phone with her father, telling him how curious it was that no one in Minnesota—Peter’s home state—had “cottages,” they had only “cabins, per the vernacular. Peter knew well enough: Both cottage and cabin were polite ways of saying you could afford a second home. But he kept his snide thoughts to himself.

 And so that Friday, taking off after lunch, Peter and Emmy drove I-91 north out of Hartford, towards the Newltons’ second home.

 “I’m so excited!” Emmy cried. “This is our first road trip!”

Emmy had a habit of categorizing “firsts,” a habit which was beginning to wear on Peter—their first date, their first movie, first kiss, first embrace, first night together, first breakfast together, first time meeting her coworkers at the elementary school, first phone conversation with her mother, and now first road trip. The list, as it grew longer, seemed all the more insipid to him. Every time she added a line to it he felt resentment, a need to punish her for compartmentalizing his life.

“Have you ever done roadhead?” Emmy asked as they began passing Springfield exits.

“What is that?”

“It’s exactly what it sounds like,” Emmy said. She was sitting in her seat as plaintively as a well-mannered child, with only a minute smirk to suggest she was hinting at something lascivious.

“No.

“It’s very popular in New England. When you’re driving the 495 to Cape everyone is having roadhead. I thought it could be another first for us.”

“No. That’s disgusting,” Peter said with a nervous chortle.

“Why is it disgusting? It’s beautiful.”

“Someone might see you.”

 Everyone can see. But at the same time, it’s nothing to see. That’s the whole fun of it.”

What if we’re driving past a minivan and a kid catches us?”

“I saw someone getting roadhead when I was a kid. My mother told me that the girl dropped a dime and was having a really hard time picking it up. I was none the wiser.”

“Well, that’s even worse then. They made a mother lie to her daughter.”

“It was an innocent lie.”

Peter just shook his head, though the thought had aroused him. He felt the way certain zucchinis do upon winning a blue ribbon at the State Fair. Emmy looked out the window, her expression serene.

Once off the interstate, Emmy played the game of pointing out landmarks. To the south was Amherst College, where her father had been a student in the early Eighties. They passed Deerfield Academy, which had as a student the son of a Jordanian prince; they passed a security detail of black sedans moved slowly along the shoulder in front of the school.

“I bet that’s the first Jordanian prince you’ve ever seen,” said Emmy.

Just before the left turn to the Newltons’ cottage was a placard nailed to a telephone pole off Highway Five; it memorialized a local soldier killed in Afghanistan. The picture on it displayed a stoic, crew-cut boy strongly resembling the kind of bullies who used to pick on Peter in high school. His dates: Jan. 3, 1986-Dec. 23, 2007. RIP.

Who is that?” Peter asked. The boy had been dead for only three months.

 “I don’t know. I never noticed it before.”

Brush and conifers obscured the cottage from the road, but its backyard was a gray-green mass of well-tended grass. A rusted plow slouched alongside the driveway, testament to an era when the land had been watered with sweat rather than a landscaping service. The cottage itself was a converted farmhouse, painted gray with a navy blue trim. A flagpole jutted out of one cornice, but where the Stars and Bars might have flown was a rainbow-colored “Pride” flag belying the stoicism of the locale: The spring air was winterish and the trees were bare like an army of skeletons’ striving hands.

Emmy’s brothers were in town when they arrived, and only Mrs. and Mr. Newlton greeted Emmy and Peter as they entered the cottage. From Mrs. Newlton’s over-warm introductions and Mr. Newlton’s too-paternal smile, Peter knew that Emmy had given them his biography: That his own father had died when he was a child, and he had lived with his aunt, mother, and cousin as an economical measure until coming east for college. In other words, that he was fatherless and poor, and much in need of sympathy.

“It’s good to meet you, Peter,” Mr. Newlton said. “We’ve heard so much about you.”

“I’m sure.”

Mr. Newlton owned a number of pawn shops and office buildings around the Providence area, and in the past decade had begun accumulating a respectable small fortune. Still, his background had been in the arts, having subsisted as a session musician before marrying. He retained a thin white beard, hipsterish glasses, the need to constantly tell people,Well, I don’t really consider myself a businessman

 The cottage was bigger than any house Peter had ever lived in, and for an ancillary habitation, it could have provided enough space for three families—three families that lived within the means Peter’s had, anyway. Mrs. Newlton showed him around, through the kitchen, where the woodstove was aflame; through a family room full of suede furniture and no television, then to her studio full of desks and tables covered in sketchbooks, and charcoal portraits on the walls. The three Newlton children each had rooms upstairs, the parents one downstairs next to a guest room which, in the absence of a guest, regularly housed Mr. Newlton’s guitars and the boys’ drumkits. Peter was free to stay the night in there, but Mrs. Newlton informed him that it would be fine if he wanted to spend the night in Emmy’s room as well.

The last room in the cottage left to see was the woodshop in the basement. This was where Peter ended up, beer in hand, alongside Emmy’s father while the women chatted upstairs.

“So tell me more about yourself. Where do you hail from in Minnesota? Around the Cities?”

“No. Well, about an hour out.”

You don’t say. Well, Emmy’s got an aunt who lives in Edina.”

“That’s a ways from Nemancie, Peter laughed uncomfortably. Edina was the wealthiest of suburbs, a long way from Nemancie’s 2,500 people, mostly farmers and their kin.

What’s your mother do?”

“She’s a nurse. Though she was a waitress when I was a kid. She just got her license recently.”

“Well, good for her.” Mr. Newlton wiped some beer off his trimmed, immaculate mustache. “I spent some time in Illinois when I was a kid, two years for my dad’s work. Insurance. Strange to compare it to New England. Everything’s on a grid, and the towns there seemed so dull. Perhaps it just wasn’t for me.”

Peter had always hated his hometown, even when he was living there—he knew it was full of hicks, and had always yearned to get away. But now that he had escaped, he grew strangely possessive of it around Easterners. His hickdom—he despised it in his heart, but he grew defensive any time someone suggested it was an improper birthright. Expression of this feeling came out unevenly, but had nonetheless compelled him to buy Wisconsin cheese over French on occasion, recycle less paper and plastic than was strictly possible for him, and to vote Republican in the last two elections out of spite.

Another small-town bias perhaps: Peter had always believed that money emasculated a man. The men in Peter’s family had all been or become farmers and laborers; they’d never had any money. The weedy, wealthy guys he knew were all accountants in town, and it was to these measly specimens that Peter was compared jokingly as a kid by his Aunt Shar when he was, per usual, acting a snob. Peter had always liked to believe Easterners, excepting some sundry mafiosi and teamsters, axiomatically belonged to this category of men—rich, urbane, and wholly unmasculine. But here was Mr. Newlton before him, rich as a thief and virile as Zeus. He owned a wall of mudcaked boots, and had a ten-point buck’s head over the mantle which he had bagged before becoming a Buddhist and decrying all worldly violence. Most of his woodworking had to do with the pawn shop. He sipped at his beer as he showed Peter how to use a lathe.

 “This’ll be a shelf in the East Sandwedge store,” he said, referring to the shop he had just opened in his hometown. “I like to make the shelves myself. I think the customers dig that authenticity majorly.”


“It’s all so much to take in,” Peter
told Emmy later when, as the sun set, the two of them walked near the river.

“This is the first time you’ve ever met a girlfriend’s parents, isn’t it?”

“It is.”

They watched the reflection of the moon quavering on the water.

TWO

Emmy’s great-grandfather had been an Episcopalian minister; Emmy’s grandmother, his daughter, had rebelled and become a freethinker, and married like kind. A similar inbreeding continued in the family, atheist wedding atheist until, like Prince Alexei and his X-chromosome, Emmy’s brothers had been born with a kind of sardonic hemophilia, a condition whereby there was no statement so sincere, no idea so reverend, as to be voiced without irony bleeding out of it like cheap spilled wine. It was rare that a sentence could escape the boys which did not end with a peremptory scoff of right or huh! along with an eyeroll.

 “Peter works for Garibaldi Mutual in Hartford,” Mrs. Newlton told her sons, who had returned home from town.

“That must be interesting work—huh!said Liam.

“Good to meet you,” said Peter, holding out his hand to shake.

“Right,” grunted Wyatt, the youngest Newlton, rolling his eyes as both boys proceeded towards the guest room to play instruments.

“He’s just young,” said Emmy, later.

After dinner, the younger generation went to the barn, which had been converted into a hangout for the boys. A pool table sat in the corner, a wall of amplifiers alongside the back wall, and a couch before a TV and DVD player which was so old and deformed that it now resembled a gray rabbit’s foot more than a piece of furniture. The smell of marijuana never dissipated. A flagpole out front flew the Jolly Roger.

“You wanna light up?” asked Liam, the older brother. He held out a joint.

“No thanks,” said Peter.

Emmy gripped his arm as they spent the rest of the evening on the rabbit’s foot watching an Adam Sandler movie.

In the morning, Peter was the last to wake. Lying in Emmy’s room alone, he wished he could remain asleep—at least until it was time to go home. The sound of Mrs. Newlton preparing brunch drifted into the room from downstairs, and the thought of going back out there, being once again the target of the Newltons’ affection and scrutiny, depressed him. He’d had enough of Emmy’s family. Why didn’t he date more orphans?

 To Peter’s delight, about the first thing Mrs. Newlton said to him when he walked into the kitchen was, “We’re out of hollandaise sauce. Could you and Emmy run into town?” He readily assented, and soon he and Emmy were driving towards Greenfield, the largest town in the vicinity.

 

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“You seem glum,” Emmy told him.

“No, not at all,” he said, turning to his girlfriend and smiling fakely.

Greenfield had once been a small industrial center, but that was in an epoch long past. Ruddy brick buildings ran up mainstreet like a line of almonds, and from a distance the figures going in and out of them resembled burrowing mites more than human beings. One-time department stores and groceries had been replaced by specialty winter supply shops, novelty bookstores, a few adult boutiques, and an over-priced Leftist drinking establishment called The People’s Pub. On the town commons across the street were the placards and banners left over from this morning’s protest against U.S. involvement in Iraq, now in its sixth year. The protests were weekly events, and most of the protestors were now taking their weekly break for coffee and donuts.

As one drew closer to the mites they could be differentiated: Some wore flannel, and the others wore fleece. The flannel-wearers were natives; the men were grim, gray and slouching, and might have been composed of yesterday’s stubble aggregated from the basins of their sinks; the flannel-wearing women were dyed, tanned, and bloated from the task of bearing and raising children.

 The fleece-wearers were transplants, relocated to Greenfield for academic work and anti-discrimination laws. No strain of Puritanism haunted their collective consciousness, and no memory of an Edwards or Hawthorne occupied their thought. The men were all small-statured, with eyes made sensitive from reading sonnets and book reviews, and the fleece-wearing women were masculine, short-haired, and with jawlines like shards of glass. A group of these women was now leaving the local community center, their adopted children running wildly around Peter and Emmy’s knees.


“André
! André! Be calm, please,” one of the women called. The child ran on.

“I like these towns,” Peter said not wholly insincerely. “There’s a sense of tragedy here.”

“There’s no tragedy in Minnesota towns?” Emmy asked him. “Why are New England towns so sad?

“These places—they created things here. There was life. Three-hundred years of culture. Now they’re just dyke hangouts.”

“Don’t say ‘dyke,’ honey.”

“There are plenty of pathetic Minnesota towns, but not too many sad ones.” The mountains loomed in the distance, standing guard around them, still casting long shadows at ten-thirty in the morning where in Minnesota the sun would have painted the landscape in monotonous light. “Greenfield is like a seashell, but its crab is gone, and now it’s sitting atop some rich lady’s toilet.”

“Hardy har-har,” Emmy said drily. “You’re so lovable before breakfast.”

Walking past a wineshop, Peter collided with a flannel-wearing woman coming down a staircase. A fat, hardy woman, the collision did little but cause her jowls to tremor, but she stared at Peter as if the run-in had not been unintentional.

“Pardon,” he said.

“Damn right, pardon. Watch where you’re goin,” she cried, her nose and eyes like a hawk’s, her skin painted with an orange tan, the fat of her worn face resembling a puddle with a few thin ripples running around it. “You coulda hurt me!”

Peter laughed underneath his breath as the woman recessed back onto the bottom step and he and Emmy kept walking. “New England hospitality for you,” Emmy said sardonically.

They stepped into one of the specialty stores that sold mostly condiments, The Spice of Life.

“I’ve never had eggs benedict before,” said Peter casually as they plucked a bottle off the shelf.

“Oh no. How could you never have had eggs benedict before? It’s heavenly,” Emmy said. “Now we’ll have our first eggs benedict together.”

“May there be many more yolks,” Peter said, holding up a bottle in a toast.

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They stepped out of the store with the hollandaise sauce and crossed the street towards the commons, where the protestors had recongregated. Emmy wanted to talk to some of them. This was another characteristic of hers that annoyed Peter: She rarely passed up an opportunity to meet someone new.

“How are you doing today?” she asked a scruffy-looking man in his late-fifties wearing a paisley shirt and a tweed jacket.

 It’s been a good day. I’d say twelve people honked for us in the past hour, and three of them I’ve never seen before. This war is coming home.”

“That’s nice,” said Emmy.

“You really think you’re doing any good out here?” Peter asked querulously.

“Hey, people see us,” the man said, smirking and shrugging. “We aren’t going away.”

Emmy asked him how long he and his group had been coming out here (“since 2002”), how he felt about the war in Afghanistan (“about the same as Iraq”), how he felt about Barack Obama and the possibility of his ending the conflicts (“very hopeful, little lass, very hopeful”).

Peter asked him: “Do you know about the kid who died in Deerfield?” The old hippie was clueless. “It looked like he was an army veteran killed in Afghanistan. There’s a tribute set up to him on Highway Five, across the way from—from—”

“Long Oak Road,” Emmy said.

“Yeah, can’t say I’ve heard about him,” said the hippie. “He’s from Deerfield? Yeah, I guess I missed that one in the Times,” he said sardonically.

Emmy thanked the hippie for his time, and the hippie informed her that time was free. Emmy and Peter walked towards Peter’s BMW.

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Across the street they noticed the orange woman Peter had collided with before, back out on the sidewalk. She looked about her cruelly and stupidly, like a squat bulldog searching for a fight. Then, out of the staircase from which the orange woman had descended, stepped Emmy’s youngest brother.

 “Hey, it’s Wyatt!” Emmy said enthusiastically. “Hey Wyatt!” she cried across the street.

A flatbed rumbled past at the moment of Emmy’s shout, and her brother gave no sign of having heard her. Instead, he took a step towards the orange woman and put his arm around her.

Antonyms filled Peter’s head: The boy was lanky, tall and young, while she was fat, squat, and old. Wyatt had a healthy mammalian skintone, while hers was lambent from tanning booths. His young face was cynical and sharp, and hers was complacent and drab. The juxtaposition was enough to disgust himthe fact that Nature could produce such disparate samples of the same species and that she expected us, all the same, to coexist. Still, societal arrangements were usually sufficient to keep the young and the old, the beautiful and the ugly, in separate orbits determined by appetites, appearances, maturity. Peter had to bite his tongue as tall lanky Wyatt lowered his head to the woman’s—like fat orange Jupiter kissing one of her doting moons, their lips met.

“Wyatt!” Emmy cried quietly. “Oh my god,” she whispered, putting her hand over her mouth. Taking Peter’s arm, she pulled him around the corner with her. The couple peered around a rainspout to see Wyatt and the woman kiss again. Intimately.

“He kissed her!” Emmy cried, shocked. “Intimately!”

The orange woman’s exterior suggested extreme vulgarity to Peter. Her breasts were loose and saggy, like an old article of clothing she could have stripped off at any moment she chose, right along with her dingy, dull flannel top. Just as profane was Wyatt who, with a face stolid and joyless and unblushing even from their heavy kisses, stood erect. He and the woman said inaudible things to each other and within two minutes they had both driven away.

“You don’t happen to be disgusted, do you?” asked Peter. He’d had a good time in the condiment shop, joking with Emmy. He tried to keep the ribald atmosphere going here.

“No. Of course not. I’m just interested, is all.” She shook her head, mystified at what she’d seen, but in a moment the feeling had given way to light excitement. “Can you believe it? My brother has a housewife!”

“A housewife? I suppose.”

“Have you never seen a housewife before? That woman is a genuine housewife.”

“I’d hope so. There’s no one going to marry her now.”

“Why do you say that?”

“She looked like she weighed two-hundred pounds, and I doubt she’s getting any younger.”

“Some men like older women.”

“That’s really not true,” Peter thought, though he didn’t want to fight about universal male sexual proclivity right now. “Your brother must viddy fat women,” he said aloud.

“I’m proud of him. He’s trying something different.”

Peter looked at her queerly. “That’s one way of putting it.”

The entire Newlton clan was back at the cottage in time for brunch. Neither Emmy nor Peter broached the subject of the fat woman over eggs and toast. Wyatt was apparently oblivious to their observation, and ate with his usual sneer.

But later in the afternoon, the topic arose when the youngsters were together in the barn. Wyatt and Liam shared a joint which Emmy sometimes took a puff from, and on handing it to her youngest brother she said in a sing-song voice, “Guess who saw you with your girlfriend today?”

“Oh shit,” said Wyatt, though his expression displayed no emotion altogether. He took a drag.

“Busted,” said Liam ironically.

“You can’t hide anything from me, little brother. Peter and I saw you in Greenfield this morning.(Peter wished she had left him out of it.) You were all over that housewife. Right in the middle of a public street. So naughty.” She spoke plaintively, with the cool objectivity of one who cares only about the truth.

“Yeah, I guess it is,” said Wyatt.

“What’s her name?”

“Monica.”

“What were you doing with Monica at ten-thirty on a Saturday morning?”

I dunno. She works in one of those accounting places in those old shithole buildings. She invites me up there sometimes.”

 “To do what?” Emmy asked, humorously overzealous.

“Bow-chicka-wa-wa,” Liam joked, then scoffed at his own irony.

“Oh, that’s so naughty,” said Emmy, not emoting beyond her little bracket of a smile. “Does she have a bed up there or something?”

“There’s a futon up there,” said Wyatt. “But fuck talking about that,” he said. He went to the pool table, grabbed the cueball, and hurled it forcefully into the opposite corner pocket.

“Saturday mornings?” Peter asked.

“You know. I’m only up here a couple days at a time. Her husband, like, fucks around on Saturday mornings.”

“She’s married?” Peter again.

“Yeah. Twenty-two idyllic years.” Wyatt went back to the rabbit’s foot couch and threw himself down on it, the joint supplely resting between his lips throughout the entire motion.

“She’s a fuckin beast in bed,” said Liam, passing on previously conveyed information. “Twenty-two years of fucking missionary is good for concubinal creativity—huh!

“What does the husband do?” Peter asked.

“Works for some lumber company outside of Turners Falls,” said Wyatt. That and he watches television and goes to church. They’ve got some kid in community college but they never see him.”

“So how long have you been seeing her?” Emmy asked.

“Probably December. Yeah. I met her then, but we didn’t do it until I was up here over MLK weekend. I dunno. I guess I smelled sex on her. I was just stalking her up the street that Sunday and she kinda just took me upstairs.”

“One small step for man,” said Liam stentorianly, raising his arms and walking like Armstrong.

“My little brother’s getting so old,” Emmy reflected, shaking her head.

“Aren’t you ashamed of yourself?” Peter asked.

“For what?” asked Wyatt.

“She’s a married woman.”

“She’s a grown woman. And their marriage is, like, shit. She got knocked up a lifetime ago and now he’s a soggy noodle. She stays with him because of decorum. They aren’t in love.”

“Do you love her?” Peter asked accusatorily.

“Hey, it’s not like that,” Wyatt said. He stood again and went to the pooltable, this time taking a cue off the wall and racking up the balls. Liam stood and joined his brother, and though the joint was now gone, he grit his teeth together as if still tending it, and started talking like Edward G. Robinson. “The shcoop, shee, iz that she’s wahld. Wahld like un animal, I zay.”

“It’s not like I’m in love with her,” said Wyatt.

“How old is she? Like fifty?” asked Emmy.

“Forty-five.”

 “You’re so adventurous,” said Emmy, with a tremble in her shoulders.

“Do you think mom and dad ever have affairs?” Liam asked the room.

“Uh, duh,” said Wyatt. “Remember that girl who worked at the Providence store? Mom stayed at her sister’s for a week after dad drove her home that one day.”

Drove her,” Liam said, putting a hand in front of him as if minding a buttock. He added a steady, “Bow-chicka-wow-wow.”

“I don’t think they ever did anything,” said Emmy, who remembered the ten-year distant scene better than her brothers.

Fuck. It must be fuckin boring to be married,” said Wyatt. “Fucking the same girl for all your life. Can you imagine life being so boring? I can imagine death better than that.”

“—huh!” exclaimed Liam.

The boys played pool while Peter distractedly played with Emmy’s hair, sitting on the couch. He started by twirling the brown-and-crimson strands with his forefinger, but his bored compulsion eventually led to a pinch and a tug. “Watch it!” Emmy cried, swatting him away. “So when are you going to see your girlfriend again?” Emmy asked, calling back to her brother.

“I dunno. Maybe tonight. Maybe tomorrow. Her husband goes out on Sunday mornings.”

“He’s probably at church,” Peter said softly.

“What?” asked Wyatt.

After a while, Peter and Emmy were walking back towards the house:

“I’m feeling tired,” said Peter. “Maybe we could go to bed.”

“Bed? It’s only four-thirty.”

“Maybe I just need a nap.”

“You don’t like it that my brother is dating an older woman, do you?”

“No.”

“Why not?”

“I don’t know exactly.”

“But don’t you find it interesting?”

“What do you mean?”

Interesting. As in something of interest.”

Peter felt depressed, and requisite of depression is that nothing seems all that interesting. Emmy led her boyfriend to her room and laid him in the bed. “She’s married,” he said in a whine as he got under the covers. She’s old and disgusting.”

“Well, I don’t want to argue about aesthetics with you right now,” said Emmy, tucking him into her bed. “Morality either. It’s none of our business, anyway.”

Peter didn’t deeply believe there was anything beyond the purview of “his business.” In this instance, there was something revolting, something that ate at him about Wyatt’s affair, though he was unable to express it in words. He was tired, and fell onto the pillow and slept. When he awoke, both the Newlton boys were gone and remained absent for the rest of the evening. He and Emmy watched a movie with her parents, a French film. The subtitles were poor.

THREE

Though it was late March, the weather was chill as a winter’s day. It was Sunday morning, and Peter set out looking for a church.

The diocese of western Massachusetts was in tough times. In Northampton, some twenty miles south of Deerfield, three of the four Catholic churches would close their doors by the end of the year, along with parishes in South Hadley and Easthampton. Some anarchists, in September, would desecrate a shrine to the Virgin in Amherst which no one had funds or the interest to repair. In another five years, half the parishes in the diocese would be closed.

Peter’s concerns were farther north. The nearest church to the Newltons’ cottage was in South Deerfield, a town whose Polish Catholic church would close in a year’s time, and whose Anglicized church, the Church of the Holy Family, would soon function as the town’s sole parish. Ethnic politics mattered not at all to Peter; his entire family was Bohemian, a mere speck of a denomination within the great American church of Ethnicity. Mass had always been a nonsectarian pursuit for him, and if a fissure existed in his mind, it was between himself and the rich WASPs he liked to think looked down on him—as if a band of marauding Know-Nothings still wanted to rid the land of his papist ilk! But then again, the scrutiny of a secular eye was enough to make him renounce his creed: Sneaking out of the Newlton house at seven-thirty that morning, he lied and told Mrs. Newlton, who was sitting at the kitchen table nursing a gourmet coffee, that he was off to hike one of the mountains to the south.

The Holy Family Parish stood beneath two mountains casting long shadows across the white wood planks of the steeple. In the Midwest, Catholic churches were the most beautiful and ornate, whereas in New England it was the Presbyterian and Episcopalian churches which followed the great European tradition of stone. Even Peter’s hometown church had been beautiful, for what it was. It brought dignity to a town from which the smell of turkey offal rarely dissipated, where most houses were sided by Plexiglas.

The South Deerfield church was gorgeous inside. The dome over the altar was painted sky blue, and full of angels in flight. Flanking the altar was Mary to the right, St. Joseph to the left. Some white-haired couples sat in the front, a few mothers with babies in the back, but the pews were almost totally empty. Everyone wore dull flannel except for Peter, whose jacket was leather.

Peter was late, and the opening hymn had begun. He seated himself behind the only other unaccompanied male in the church—a plump, big-eared man who sang proudly and out-of-key. He reminded Peter of one of his uncles without even needing to see his face—merely from hearing his boisterous, unabashed voice, and seeing the thick tops of his ears, dimpled like pale thin slices of orangeskin. His hands were a working man’s, thick and well-used. When the elderly priest gave the opening invocation, the man bowed his head with such fervor that Peter thought he was going to cry.

Peter was surprised by how much of the Mass he remembered—the Lord have mercy and Christ have mercy and Amen—yet theology was dull compared to the sociological. It was the man in front of him who truly won his attention, and Peter began creating stories trying to explain who he was. For this was a rare species: an American man who did not associate masculinity with phony stoicism or NFL logos; a figment of a once-proud race of sedulous Catholic men who brought their families to church each week, who prayed to God openly and with tearful reverence, who sacrificed much for their families and Church, and relished this asceticism with all their hearts. He stood there singing, bowing his head, praying to a god that had set him here wifeless, childless, in a raggedy jacket in an empty temple. He was to Peter like the last soldier standing rank in a losing battle, singing proudly the hymns of a dead nation.

It suddenly struck Peter: The man was the cuckold. Maybe it was being in this place, this house of fantastic claims, but Peter somehow knew it had to be true. The moral laws of the universe seemed to dictate it: that Wyatt’s sin must be weighed against a man who was almost wholly unsullied and good. His wife had been usurped, and now this man’s refuge of fidelity was the Bride of Christ. Peter gazed at the man’s dull silver wedding band.

Mass proceeded. The cuckold bowed his head as the congregation addressed God. He loudly and firmly cried Lord hear our prayer when it was time to plead to heaven. When the collection plate went around, he dropped a twenty into a salad of cash that was mostly ones and fives. Most peculiar was when it came time to share peace. The cuckold turned to shake Peter’s hand, having noticed Peter’s admirable attempts to sing the responsorial psalm and remember for heart the Nicene Creed. The man was not old—maybe in his mid-forties—but his face had been worn by experience. The lines etched upon us by time are generally light and filled in only gradually with the years, whereas experience, in its way, had marked broads roads indiscriminately under the cuckold’s eyelids, lips, on his forehead, and paved them with black stress and woe. And when he let go of Peter’s hand with a nod and smile, a few older women came back to him, and lined up outside his pew. The first woman hugged him. The next shook his hand, and whispered something in his ear. All the women held him close, as if consoling him. It was a short line, but required a pause in the Mass for it to run through. The priest smiled benevolently until the small procession had finished.

 After Mass, Peter waited for the cuckold to come out of the church.

“God bless you!” Peter cried, approaching him. The words surprised him right out of his mouth; he had never suggested God should bless anyone, not even for a sneeze.

“Oh, He does!” replied the man with a big smile.

Peter was a private person in general, and the thought of intruding into another man’s business regularly would have mortified him. But today he felt odd, rebellious—nearly Evangelical in spirit.May I ask, are you married?”

The man laughed softly. He pointed to his wedding band. “It didn’t slip off in the collection plate, so I s’pose that’s good news.”

Exhilarated from the Mass, it came out with a flourish: “I think I know where your wife is.”

The man laughed. “Well, it’s not hard to guess. She doesn’t get out much.”

“I’m sorry. Is your wife’s name….Melanie?—Melody?”

“Beautiful attempts. But I’m afraid it’s not. You must have some other lucky man’s bride on your mind.”

One of the white-haired ladies came up to the cuckold. “It’s so nice to see you, dear.” She rose up on her toes and kissed him on the cheek firmly. “So nice to see you. It’s time. It’s really time.”

 “I know. I know,” he said. He closed one callused hands around the woman’s fragile two, and patted them reassuringly.

“Be strong. You know the love of God is on your side.”

“I know,” he said grimly—or was it only Peter who perceived he was acting grim? He took a step closer to the cuckold, relishing the feeling of being close to a man who was on God’s side.

“I’m sorry,” Peter began after the woman had left. “I must have you confused with someone else.”

“I can only hope he’s a handsome devil.”

Peter laughed. “I’ve never seen the guy before. The thing is that I’ve come across some intelligence about his wife.”

“Russian spies, I suppose,” the man said wearily.

“Nothing so treacherous. Though she was—I found out she’s cheating on the guy.”

Though the true cuckold was no different from Adam to either of them, the man was embarrassed by Peter’s forthrightness, and scratched the back of his head uncomfortably. “Well, I don’t think I’m the fella. If my wife’s making the rounds, there’d be a couple more ghost sightings around town, I’m guessin,” he said compactly, as if he had rehearsed the joke before in his head.

Another woman came up from behind him. She kissed him and hugged him, and he took her hands just as he had taken the previous woman’s. They volleyed back and forth—“You be strong.” “I will.” “You remember you’re not alone.” “I know.”—and she looked him in the eye sternly, said, “You understand? You take care of yourself.”

It finally hit Peter how meddlesome he’d become. “I’m usually not so rude,” he apologized.

“It’s alright. It’s alright. I’m a lucky man,” his companion replied, patting his ample belly as if it were sure sign of his luck. “Sunday mornings—they’re beautiful, them. I feel on a Sunday morning the best I feel all week.” He looked up and around him, to the mountains surrounding, which no longer cast long shadows. “I’m lucky a man don’t ask me for a kidney on one of these mornings. I’m liable to give it to him, on a Sunday morning.”

The men shook hands and Peter apologized again for his intrusion; it went against his Minnesotan stoicism as much as anything he’d ever done—Peter told him this, in case he wanted to pursue this avenue of autobiography any further. But the man demurred, and they both walked towards the street, where their vehicles were parked. The man drove a pickup, and Peter drove a black BMW he had bought seven months prior. The man pulled out before him, and Peter ended up following him up Highway Five, north, back towards the Newltons’ cottage.

Peter smiled. He felt redeemed. Before this morning he hadn’t been in a church for years. In eighth grade he’d read Nietzsche and conducted, before school one day, his own smallscale wake of God; in college, he’d revered Stephan Dedalus for the moral fortitude shown at his mother’s bedside; he wouldn’t even go to Christmas or Easter Masses with his grandmother when he was back home. But going to Mass today had made him happy. The disgust he felt yesterday had never faded. For all his impiety, Peter had never lost his Catholic perspective on sex, his antipathy to its earthiness, and this sojourn to the church had made him feel as celibate as a child again, no longer infected by the taint of corpus. He was a world apart from the desperate, wizened women and the disparate, sex-crazed young men who, nonetheless, craved each other ineluctably, beyond the bounds of right-thinking. What disgusting reality this is!—that pleasure enraptures us the way rot eats a ripe fruit. How could Emmy laud it?—then again how could she not? These rich Easterners, always in the pursuit of Mammon. They might’ve had their money and virility, but could they be Christians all the while? Sex had been verboten in Peter’s family growing up, and he’d been wiser for this. The more you learned about sex, the less wise you became. And Wyatt was lodged in a deep unwisdom now. But what did it mean, to tell a young man he should abstain? Pleasure was its own justification. Wyatt would be lost, so long as he was young.

Only a couple hours and Peter would have Emmy to himself again. He would have loved to share his present feelings with her, but he knew they arose in contrariness to her family, and that Emmy wouldn’t be able to understand. The Church stood as an antipode to the Newltons, simple and sincere where they were complex and modern: This morning’s love for the Church could not have existed without his contempt for them. No, he couldn’t tell Emmy this. Anyway, no woman wants to know her lover’s every facet, and the facts we withhold from a spouse are in general just as important as those we share.

Lost in thought, Peter scarcely noticed that the truck he had followed out of South Deerfield was the same he trailed still, nearing Long Oak Road. The cuckold pulled onto the right shoulder where Peter was prepared to take a left. Peter looked at the placard again and noticed the rosary hanging off a nail near the photograph of the boy, the dead soldier.

 “Oh no,” Peter whispered, fear knitting tremulous webs in his now-vacant gut.

The cuckold got out of the cab and waved neighborly, having noticed Peter stalking him from out of South Deerfield. His face was sullen.

I can’t believe it. I’m so sorry,” Peter whispered. He felt, suddenly, indicted in a great evil, culpable as any man alive. For the first time in many years he felt the pain and dread in his gut that signified he had sinned.

He drove the gravel path towards the Newltons’ cottage, watching in the rearview mirror as the man crossed the ditch to clean the placard, which had grown mud-splattered from some shoulder-riders on Highway Five.

“I’m so sorry,” Peter repeated, not knowing if he sought expiation from the man, from God, or from himself.
*******

Richard Greenhorn’s new novel Western Empire is available here and here.

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