Walking to the door, Constantine turns back to Bart. “Found this letter, going through Barbara’s things. In an unmarked envelope. I guess it was to a lover.” Bart’s clients sometimes did that, when the session was practically over. A new subject, that they needed to blurt out before departing.
“No date. Doesn’t say who it was to. No signature.” The widower alternates between shouting to the room’s four walls and softly sobbing. “But it’s her handwriting. Maybe it was never sent.”
“Next time, Constantine. We‘ll begin with that next week. Stay well.”
“Christ, I wish I’d never seen it. It spoils everything, Bart.”
“Try to focus this week on the present. What’s your purpose now? Be well.”
“Shouldn’t we pray together? Like last time?”
“Let’s do a silent prayer today,” says Bart, since he’s no longer sure, at this point in his career and life journey, that he knows for what or to whom to pray.
After Constantine’s departure, Bart pours into a thermos the remaining contents of his coffee maker. Driving to Bethany Beach, by way of a stop in Media, to pick up his daughter, Bart reflects on his talk with Constantine minutes earlier. It’s been nine months since Barbara’s died – a sudden and hopefully peaceful death, at the age of 51. Constantine has been traveling through what Bart views as the textbook stages of grieving, in roughly the textbook order. Until his last-minute outburst just now.
Bart reaches 95 at high noon, sipping coffee, hoping to get to Media before Philadelphia rush hour. Deciding against the touristy Maryland House, Bart veers off the highway to his favorite diner in Aberdeen. He’ll call his daughter, Elly, and give her his ETA. Minutes later, he’s watching the waitress bending down to deliver a food order to the next table. Raven-haired and buxom, her uniform top zipper pulled down a few inches below normal. As she reaches his table to take his order, Bart thinks she flashes him an impish smile. After she brings his french apple pie and still more coffee, he thinks her eyes lock with his, just for a moment, before she swivels away to the next customer. Probably just his imagination, he thinks, a trick to get larger tips.
His brain soon pictures another client, Caroline, a sophomore at a local community college. who’s been coming to him for a few weeks, sent to him by her mother. Mom, whom he knew from his former church, is paying for the visits, so that Bart can help her daughter “find her way.”
On her first visit, Caroline wore a prim black dress, adorned across her chest by a large white cross, with some kind of silver filigree. “My mother got it in Ethiopia,” Caroline told him. “She thinks it will show people I’m a good Christian.” She talked about her classes, and problems she’s had adjusting after being out of school for a few years. At the end of that visit, Caroline said, as she reached for the door knob, another one of those last-minute client thoughts, “But that’s not really who I am, a good Christian. I’m not even sure I want to be one”
“Got it, Caroline,” he’d told her. “Let’s focus on that question next time. And on some of the negative emotions you say you have. Until then, it might be useful for you to focus on living in the moment. “
Back on the road, he wonders again about the wisdom of having clients from his former church, where he’d been the minister for two decades. All those boundary issues. All those folks in his old congregation who’d known Bart and his wife for years. But for the time being, he thinks, just starting out on his new mission, a pastoral counselor with a very small client base, that will have to do.
Bart ponders, not for the first time that week, how all the world’s inhabitants seemed to have a capacity for evil – even the Gandhi, the Schweitzers, the Mother Teresas. They all had at some level, he thought, their baser impulses. He likes to think he can help a few people cope with some of those impulses. That’s where his real talents lie.
He’d become a minister because he thought his faith and his ambitions would allow him to help people in a spiritual context. But gradually, year by year, he began to have doubts, about the wisdom of telling his congregants about the God of the Book, the bible stories conflating ancient myths, the promise of eternal life – all those ideas one had to take on faith, and even glory in the fact that those ideas were inexplicable. He soon realized that some of the lessons he’d learned at seminary, about the origins of those myths, could not be passed on to his congregation, lest it shake their faith. That’s when he started studying at night to get his therapist credentials.
Not just because of his growing doubts. It was so he could give up all that church stuff he really didn’t enjoy any more – preparing and delivering the weekly sermons. All those tedious committee meetings. The tussles with his choir director. The deadly coffee hours – like cocktail parties, his wife used to say, except no alcohol to conceal the boredom. In his car, leaving Media, father and daughter discuss her school work for a few minutes. Elly had managed to wangle a nice fellowship to Italy next fall, to compare the minor works of the three Bs of 18th century Italian romanticism, Ludovico di Breme, Pietro Borsieri, and Giovanni Berchet. She and Bart quickly got to the purpose of their mid-December trip to the cold Delaware beach – the third anniversary of his wife’s death.
The family had happily vacationed at Bethany Beach for over two decades, ever since Elly was a toddler. His daughter had recently convinced Bart that, despite the miserable weather, they should mark that anniversary in that almost deserted resort town.
Arriving in early evening, they go to a diner on the main drag, one of the few places to remain open out of season, find a booth out of hearing range of the few others there, and order New England clam chowder and lobster rolls. “Do you want to talk about your mother?” he asks Elly.
“I still don’t understand why she died. It certainly wasn’t an accidental overdose, like you said first.”
“I guess I wanted to protect you then. It’s hard to know, to explain, why people commit suicide.”
“Therapists, of all people,” says Elly, “should know it’s better to say she died by suicide. You know?”
“It was difficult for her, being a minister’s wife in our church. Too many demands on an introvert like her. Too many expectations. I guess she had demons I didn’t suspect.”
“Ha,” Elly grunted. They’ve had this conversation many times, but she knows that they need to keep having it. “You were the great compassionate listener. People could tell you their deepest fears, and you’d understand. And fix them. Mom told me once you had a Messiah complex.”
After an early breakfast near their motel, they walk next morning in silence to the beach, Bart behind his daughter, accompanied by a just-beginning sprinkling of snow. They ascend a familiar ramp up to the boardwalk and then go down another ramp to the sand. Proceeding under a cloudy sky, Elly gets to the water first, reaches into her backpack for the carton her father had given her in her Media apartment, and slowly shakes half of her mother’s ashes down onto an oncoming wave. She carefully hands the carton over to her father, who shakes the rest of its contents onto another gently lapping wave. Bart says, “Be in peace, my dear Rose.”
As Elly dozes in the passenger seat on their return trip to Media, Bart speculates on what he can do to help soften their verbal sparring. Straining to glimpse road signs through the now swirling snowflakes, he’s startled to see some yards ahead of him a dark figure dart out of the trees. It crashes loudly into his car bumper, directly ahead of Elly’s seat, then quickly vanishes. “Why didn’t you stop, Dad?” she cries out when she learns what’s happened.
“I’m sure it was a deer,” he says.
“Yeah, so why didn’t you stop, to see what you could do for it? Maybe it was a person.”
“Be reasonable. The deer is either dead, or wounded, maybe not seriously. It’s off the road. We’re in the middle of nowhere. What in the hell could I do? These things just happen in life sometimes.”
“You’re so cold and callous about killing something. You don’t even care,” She begins to sob, then is silent for many miles. “You’re sure one hell of a grief counselor, Dad,” she says at last, and is silent until they get back to Media, where the snow’s might has momentarily ebbed.
In their second session in November, Caroline’s shapeless black dress and large white cross had been replaced by a tight tee-shirt and jeans. The blue shirt had a white #MeToo on its front. Bart asked why she’d dropped out of college for a while.
“Bad drugs. Bad sex.”
“I’ve been clean for six months. I’m still working on the sex part,” Caroline said.
“I’m not a sex therapist, but maybe, after we’ve established a bit more mutual trust, we can explore your, uh, sexuality.”
“I look forward to that, Bart. I saw you staring at my chest.” she says, grinning. “Or were you just looking for that big cross?”
“Thanks, Dad, for going on this trip with me,” his daughter says outside her apartment, in almost a whisper. “I hope it wasn’t too hard on you.” She gives Bart a quick hug, and an even quicker peck on his cheek before exiting the car. About to go inside, she swivels around, puts down her suitcase, and walks back, quickly, to his side of the car, motioning him to roll down his window. “Maybe it wasn’t hard on you at all. You gave most of your energy, most of your fucking wise, compassionate, attentive listening, to the church. And now most of it goes, I imagine, to this half-assed combination of minister and therapist. There was never nearly enough for us. For me. For Mom.”
On the way back to Virginia, Bart veers off 95 again, to reach his favorite diner. The sultry buxom waitress doesn’t seem to be working that night, so Bart orders pie and coffee from a less much attractive, heavyset woman, who, he was glad, didn’t call him “Deary.” His mind wanders again to his client, Caroline, whose chest, in their last session did, indeed, despite his denials to her, intrigue him. He wonders whether he should take a few three-day continuing education credit courses he’d seen advertised in new techniques he could employ in his job. He has lots of work to do.
After his second cup of decaf, he thinks back to the time, long ago, when Constantine’s wife, Barbara, had come to see him, after the death in a car crash of their youngest daughter. Even then, he’d enjoyed the pastoral care part of his minister job. He was happy to give Barbara some comfort in her time of trials. She said that Constantine didn’t seem to grieve much over their loss, and spoke of other matters as well. Her husband’s interest in sports and hunting didn’t appeal to her. Bart had talked to her then about God’s love, and about being reunited in Heaven with her loved ones, about their Father’s comfort.
In early evening, Bart pulls into his snow-covered driveway. Two lights are on in his home. Ever since he had to put his old dog down, it’s been very empty. Leaving the engine running, Bart sits in the car for long moments. focused on the two illuminated rooms.
“At first, I felt like I was kicked in the balls, Bart, “Constantine had told him at their last session, after their silent prayer, just two days ago. “But now, I still believe she was a good wife. Guess I don’t really feel betrayed. Just sad.”
Twenty-five or so years ago, Constantine’s wife, Barbara, had told Bart she was benefitting a lot from his efforts to help her through her grief. That she relished the comforting hugs ending their sessions in his church office. At each succeeding meeting, the hugs grew longer and closer, until, one afternoon, she said she didn’t want to stop. He’d replied in kind. Their affair was a great joy to him, each coming together in an ecstasy of passion, followed by a long quiet time when his brain would stop clicking. Almost like a Buddhist meditation. But their adventure didn’t last long. The ecstasy began to dwindle, as it had with his wife after their first few years of marriage. He certainly saw no need then, nor does he now, to confess what most would view as their large unforgivable transgressions.
Truth-telling now, after decades, would help no one, certainly not Constantine, and could only lead to new sorrow and recriminations, and undoubtedly end as well his new most satisfying career. And Bart never “strayed,” as some people would term it, again–at least not physically. But, certainly, many times in his mind. Despite what Jimmy Carter had told Playboy when he was running for President, Bart thought then, and still believes, that such mental fantasies aren’t sinful, but, instead, perfectly natural. Maybe even desirable for a healthy marriage, so long as no one gets hurt.
One light on is in the front upstairs bedroom. Another is in the kitchen. To scare off would-be burglars, he tells the neighbors. Perhaps, as well, those lights are on to make him feel that someone, maybe his wife, Rose, is at home, awaiting his return.
Waiting to forgive.
Gerald Kamens’ work has appeared in flashquake, America, the Christian Science Monitor, Baltimore Sun, Grief Diaries, Ravensperch, POZ, Dirt Press, Abbey Hill Literary, Strata, and Litro. Recent works include children’s stories, essays, and short plays. He lives with his wife in Falls Church, Virginia, USA.