Eigen sat in his gliding rocker near the big bay window of the farm. If it weren’t for the denuded trees, the light would make you think it was summer. He had told himself when he first moved here that he’d do something with the fields. Some beans and cabbage maybe. But leading the congregation combined with the piano lessons had proven too much. Fallow fields. The furrows where the plow had once turned up and divotted the earth were indistinct, shambolic clay without apparent form. Straight lines become a diaspora of muck.
He read a new verse translation of The Book of Job by Stephen Mitchell. He had been using Job’s story more and more in his sermons the last couple years, and he supposed this made sense in light of his divorce. “Man born of woman, few of years and full of trouble,” and so on. It was his job to warn them. This congregation especially with their two-car garage, two-income households. It is important to live within this mystery. Are the blessings of this world blessing us? If the creature comforts leave us, if love flees us, will we maintain faith? Will we curse God? Is untested faith faith? He would ask them.
He glanced up at the oak grandfather clock as it chimed for high noon. He set aside the book and walked into the kitchen. He didn’t bother turning the light switch. Through the half roundel above the sink a small shaft of daylight lit the dust motes. They lolled like somnambulists or drunks.
He grabbed a blue and white Willow plate from the cupboard, opened the fridge and gouged two healthy spirals from the honey-roasted ham Paula had left for him earlier in the week. He took a half stick of butter from the fridge door shelf and walked over to the stove. He pulled open a drawer beneath the stove and removed a small pan to grill his sandwich. He scooped the ham spirals off of the plate and set them on the rye bread. The ham left a patina of grease on the Willow crest so that the two blue doves that flew above the Mandarin palace looked like dun cowbirds drawn poorly.
This was antique British china that Eigen had won in the divorce and he relished using it for routine meals which had been disallowed when he had been married to Joni. She seemed to think that if you used the china more than once a year it would devalue it severely, but Eigen couldn’t see the point in having bowls and plates that no one used. Plus he didn’t care if the dishes got faded. He could never stand the story of Koong-Se and Chang’s forbidden love. Eigen believed that the spirit might be capable of entering birds, but he knew damn well that murdered lovers did not turn into doves.
“We can leave them to Benjamin as part of our legacy,” Joni had said. Eigen told her he didn’t think she understood what legacy meant. Was that a legacy? A painting of two smallish birds flying over a Chinese temple?
He took the spatula from its ceramic holder on the stove ledge and flipped the sandwich. The rye bread had browned perfectly in the butter. He remembered his father telling him not to eat ham as a kid. When Eigen had asked him why, he told him to go to his grandfather’s farm some time and take a look in the trough. He did this and was mildly disgusted at the garbage, coarse grain and sludge, but he loved the taste of ham on butter-grilled rye. As he hovered above the stove and took a bite of the sandwich, he remembered all the prohibitions against eating swine in Leviticus and Deuteronomy and laughed.
He ate quickly without sitting down. He wanted to get to the church at 1 to prepare his interview questions for Jerry and Paula. The church gave a standard set for counseling, but Eigen felt he needed to tweak them just a bit for this particular couple which in his mind was a special case, but while he drove through New Boston and daydreamed, looking into the bean and cabbage fields and paddocks full of quarter horses, sighting a plane on its landing route just a couple hundred feet above Sibley Road, he could only ask questions of himself. If only certain people have the free will to ask for His grace, how does this constitute free will? How is prevenience different than irresistibility? He ought to ask the jock these questions and when he got tongue-tied or spouted lame platitudes Eigen would suggest a separation. Or maybe he would stick to the church’s questions that assumed the couple had the emotional depth of a fish tank. It was half-true in this case anyway. Draw the man taut upon the surface of his life. Hit him where he lives, as his father used to say, so she could see for herself that there was nothing. And who was he to field anybody’s queries about God?
As he turned left onto Telegraph, Eigen noticed a bonfire pit stacked high in the middle of a brown field. The boards were splayed and swiveled around each other without a thought for the life of fire. It didn’t matter. These yokel kids would pour so much gas around the base it would be a rolling blaze in mere seconds. A small flight of stairs had been stacked haphazardly over the mess, and he had half a mind to come back later that night and see those old steps burn.
He pulled into the church parking lot envisioning the fire. The steps burnt out, the two-by-four riders molten snakes and crumbling. He had noticed early on in his tenure here that the local youth had a great capacity for poisoning themselves. Those fields weren’t safe to walk in with all the plastic that people dumped let alone for hosting fires on windy late-autumn nights.
He waited for them in his office and read William James’ account of the Quaker mystic George Fox. One winter afternoon Mr. Fox had ditched some friends to wander toward the three spires of the puritan church in Lichfield. It was market day, and Fox removed his shoes, trudging barefoot through the snow and chanting, “Woe to bloody Lichfield!” to gape-mouthed stares of industrious citizens. It struck Eigen as a strange anecdote even after having read it a dozen times or so. Woe to bloody Lichfield! Woe to its old merchants’ row. He liked that James didn’t try to dismiss such strangeness by calling it crazy. James didn’t ask if the act was inspired because of course it was inspired.
He heard Jerry’s booming voice in the atrium before he saw them. “Did you see that pick-6 by Woodson?” he was asking Dennis Melton, a bible study leader and president of the dad’s club. Eigen kept Dennis around for his loyalty and the fact that he was good with the young men of the congregation, organizing canoe trips and day trips to Tigers games, though he doubted that Dennis was even remotely capable of interpreting a bible passage. It made sense that he and Jerry would find common material to chat about. Paula was head of the women’s bible study group, and while Jerry and Dennis yammered away about Lloyd Carr and Michigan football, she informed Lydia, Eigen’s secretary, that the Kokielkas were here for their appointment with the pastor.
Eigen dog-eared the page in his copy of Varieties of Religious Experience and told her to send them in. He knew by the hum of football terminology out in the atrium that Jerry was still talking to Dennis.
When Lydia told her the pastor was ready, Paula did not go to retrieve Jerry. She entered the office by herself and shook his hand. She told him thanks for meeting with them and that Jerry would be in in a second.
Eigen assumed they had driven together but couldn’t tell for sure. He offered her some coffee.
“No thanks,” she said. She’d drunk a bottle of the Griffin’s Lair Pinot Noir the night before and didn’t think her stomach could handle coffee. “Jerry just stopped for a second to talk to Dennis. He’ll be right in.”
“No problem,” Pastor Eigen said as he shuffled some papers in the manila file folder on his desk.
He had counseled four other couples since coming to this church, and they had all managed to get through their problems, a fact that made him confident in his abilities and vocation. But this one felt wrong. He was attracted to Paula, and there was no way to turn that part of him off. He didn’t think Jerry was right for her, and it had kept him up most of the previous night knowing he’d have to show up and go through the motions of recommending strategies to get beyond their issues. It was his job to help them, but in his soul he did not want to help them, and there was no way to get around his soul other than to recuse himself. He couldn’t recuse himself. There would be no way to explain it that would make sense.
While they waited, Paula scanned the walls. To her left hung a prayer a parishioner had cross-stitched into fabric: God grant me the serenity… An insufferable cliché in Paula’s mind. Next to that was a Last Supper print. Aside from the potted Peace Lily near the door and the pubic Weeping Fig that sprouted from the earthenware pot on his desk, this office didn’t belong to the Timothy Eigen she knew. It was too sterile. This wasn’t the first time she’d been inside his office but the first time she realized he hadn’t decorated it himself. Sure, his home had the garden variety, faux spiritual stuff too, but it also had clues about him everywhere you looked, like the Frieda Kahlo book on the coffee table, a print of Picasso’s Old Guitarist that hung in his study above the desk. His shelves of records, the Bach fugues on harpsichord, the red CD booklet with everything Jerry Lee Lewis had ever done, the nylon string guitar that sat in a stand in the corner of the living room.
“You know Jerry,” she said and smiled. “He never misses an opportunity to talk football.”
Eigen laughed. He sipped from his coffee. The mug was from the optimist’s club he had joined. One of their parishioners, also a councilman for the city of Taylor, had invited him. It would have been bad for the books to slight this guy, he had realized, so he went to the meetings, led the local republican business leaders in prayer and kept otherwise quiet. The mug was blue with white lettering. There were five morning commandments printed on the mug that he read sometimes and laughed. “Be so strong that nothing can disturb your peace of mind. Talk health, happiness, and prosperity to every person you meet. Make all your friends feel that there is something in them. Look at the sunny side of everything and make your optimism come true. Wear a cheerful countenance at all times and give every creature you meet a smile.” Nowhere in the optimist’s literature had he found instructions on how to follow these dictums if your occupation entailed incessant re-readings of Old Testament books.
“That’s ok, this is my only appointment today.” He reached forward and slid the Weeping Fig to the left hand side of his desk, remembering suddenly that there should be no visual impediments, that, however small, they might inhibit the process. “Are the girls practicing their piano?” he asked.
“Well,” Paula said. “Not as much as they should be. They’ve been pretty preoccupied with volleyball, and neighborhood boys in Denise’s case.”
Eigen chuckled. “It must be challenging to have four girls,” he said. “I know one son kept us plenty busy.”
“They’re good girls. I just worry like any mother, I guess.”
Paula snapped a look over her shoulder. “I don’t know what is taking him, but I better go and grab him otherwise he might talk about that Michigan game all afternoon. I’ll be right back.”
Pastor Eigen nodded. As she went to find Jerry, he reviewed the conversation points in the church’s counseling manual. They suggested he begin by asking the woman what her concerns were. Each bulleted conversation point had paragraphs of parenthetical notes instructing the counselor what to do if the man became loud or the dialogue got contentious. It was all designed to unify the couple. The subtext of the prefatory material was that contemporary life was hard and one could not go it alone without the love of God and spouse. Words struck him as impossible at best. If he said the word “alone” in a room of three people, what could it mean? If he said the word “alone” to Jerry and Paula in this office this afternoon, what was he saying? For Jerry Kokielka he imagined it meant a quarterback draw, making something out of a broken play, which in its way was what the poor dolt may have to do. He didn’t know enough to extend this metaphor further. What it meant for him depended on the day. Most days though it was fugues and country darkness interrupted intermittently by the landing lights of planes. Each meaning of alone was antithetical to alone. Alone was only God, and God was the word, he reminded himself. Alone was tautological as that Old Testament God.
When Paula came back with Jerry a minute later his forehead and nose were as red as his hair. It was clear he’d had a couple beers in celebration of U of M’s victory.
Eigen stood up and shook his hand.
“Thanks for seeing us, pastor,” Jerry said.
“No problem,” Eigen replied. “Please take a seat.” He motioned to the two chairs in front of his desk.
“I guess why we’re here,” Jerry began awkwardly, but Eigen raised his hand to stop him.
“Before we start, I find it’s best to lay down a few ground rules.”
Jerry shrugged, gave Paula an irritated glance, then looked back toward the pastor. “Shoot,” he said.
“What I’ll do is begin by asking Paula what her concerns are, then you and I will listen without interrupting.”
“Sure, without interrupting,” Jerry emphasized.
Eigen ignored this. “Then I will ask you to state your concerns, and Paula and I will listen. But the most important thing for all of us is listening. No matter how much we wish to interject, we must allow whoever is speaking to finish their thoughts before we come in.” Eigen took the little pot of coffee from the table near his desk and warmed himself up.
Paula watched the pastor and nodded as he spoke. Jerry searched her profile. She sensed him looking at her in her periphery but kept her eyes straight ahead. She could tell going in that Jerry didn’t have the right attitude. That display in the hallway then the quip about being interrupted.
“Would you like some coffee or water before we get started, Jerry?” Eigen asked.
“Ok then,” Eigen motioned toward Paula. “Why don’t you take a few minutes, Paula, to tell us a little bit about your concerns and why you think you and Jerry need counseling?”
“Ok,” Paula began. “I guess our marriage just seems stale lately. I mean, it’s not like we fight a lot or anything, but I feel like we use the girls to avoid our feelings, at least to avoid admitting to ourselves that we’ve grown apart over the last couple years.”
Jerry chortled as she said this. Eigen shot him a sharp look.
“It isn’t like Jerry’s a bad father, and he’s a very responsible person. It’s just that I want more. We used to have fun. We used to have passion, but now it feels like we’re running a business, and I know that if we’re honest with ourselves we’ll admit that it’s not spiritually rewarding for either of us.”
Eigen watched her as he listened. He noticed that she did not look Jerry’s way once while she was talking. Jerry sat with his arms crossed and stared blankly out the window behind his desk.
“Jerry takes the two older girls to volleyball while I do homework with Ellen and Martha. I cook or get carryout ready before they come home. We eat a late dinner, put the girls to bed, then I sit in the kitchen and prep for class and he watches sports in the den and preps for class. That’s it, really, I just don’t feel like there’s anything other than the girls between us anymore.” Then she raised her eyes and looked directly at Pastor Eigen. “And I should have realized this a long time ago, I guess, but he doesn’t share any of my interests. I don’t want to sound mean, but his obsession with sports bores me.”
Eigen nodded his head when she was done. “Thank you for sharing your feelings so candidly,” he said. He turned to Jerry who was now gazing down at the tops of his running shoes. “Jerry, do you share any of Paula’s feelings?”
Jerry uncrossed his arms and placed his hands on his thighs. Leaning forward, he said, “No, I don’t. I was fucking blindsided by all of this when she brought it up last week, to tell you the truth.”
Paula looked away. She felt that cool ache behind her eyes and the lump in her throat that always came before she cried. She should’ve known he would act like this.
“Jerry, there’s no need to use abusive language. Try to tell us how you feel without swearing,” Eigen said.
Jerry stood and looked up at the ceiling, throttling the air in frustration. “Abusive language. You’ve gotta be kidding me.” He turned to Paula. “I’m done with this shit. You stay and talk to this joker if you want, Paula. I’ll be in the van.”
He stormed out of the office. Paula began sobbing in her chair.
Eigen came around his desk and put his hand on her shoulder. “I am so sorry,” he said. “These things are incredibly difficult. I was just divorced last year, so I know a little of how you feel.”
“I can’t tell you how embarrassed I am that he acted like that,” she said, wiping her eyes with a tissue she had taken from her purse. “I mean, I’ve seen his temper before, but I didn’t think he would act like that in front of you. I apologize.”
Eigen sat down in the chair beside her. “Don’t apologize. We’ll see if we can get Jerry to come back another day, maybe next Saturday, when he’s had time to cool off. These things are a process, and sometimes anger is a part of that process.” Eigen leaned forward and rested his forearms against his knees. He tried to make eye contact with her beneath all that beautiful hair. “We all have to own our parts in this. If the communication process breaks down, it’s not just the fault of one person. I’m sure Jerry just felt a bit trapped since it was new to him.” Eigen stood and walked behind his desk. “I can call him this week if you want,” he offered. He opened his appointment book. “I’ll put you guys down tentatively for next Saturday at the same time. I think by then Jerry and I will talk and he’ll realize that this is really for the good of your marriage.”
He walked her to the door and shook her hand. “Keep in mind that everyone processes emotions differently. We go through these things at our own paces and on our own levels of understanding.”
Paula nodded her head. “Thank you, Pastor Timothy.”
Eigen called Jerry the following Wednesday shortly after eight o’clock when Paula told him he would be home from taking the girls to volleyball. He was promptly hung up on. He stared at the blinking 0:11 on his cordless phone and laughed. His house was dark and the air traffic was light that night, meaning he could lean back into about five minutes of silence before hearing a plane. He laughed and laughed. He thought of how all tragedies were funny, even the ones that didn’t mean to be. Lear, Hamlet, Faust.
He sipped at his wine, a cheap red zinfandel he’d bought at the Mid-Sibley Market. Half a bottle down it tasted good. He closed his eyes and prayed. He asked the Lord to forgive him, but he didn’t know for sure if he was actually doing anything. This was the living water, moving simply to the tilt of the land toward more water. It was epiphenomenal for him to think he controlled events in this world, he realized, cribbing from the little Marx he read during his apologetics.
He loved to watch the river down in Luna Pier just before it poured into the lake in a confluence of smaller tributaries and creeks that trickled through the glacial moraine, full of mercury and babbling, big sounding cataracts of whitish green. The river did not need him to watch. He sat thinking this way for a long time, working on the bottle of wine. A plane passed overhead, thrumming the wine glass. He nodded off in the middle of a prayer.
He woke at 5 am, alarmed that the front door was open. This had happened before. The latch didn’t line up with the slot in the molding so if he didn’t deadbolt it, the wind would sometimes blow it open. He told himself the open door was from the wind, not an intruder, not a presence. He was good at living alone, but even when he was sure he was alone, he tended to jump at the shadows.
He latched the deadbolt. The house was dark except for the blue glow of the stove light in the kitchen. He walked toward it and opened the fridge. He pulled out a little bowl that was covered in cellophane which he peeled back. He took an egg from the bowl and remembered the sclera around Jerry’s eyes, bloodshot and yellowish in spots. That jackass had hung up on him. Who did he think he was hanging up on his preacher?
He peppered the egg and ate it in one bite. He wasn’t sure if this was breakfast or a post-midnight snack. When you live alone your schedule becomes your own. This can be liberating or disorientating. In his case it depended on the week. He thought of heading to the church and showing his face, possibly start making notes for the weekend’s sermon, but he knew he’d only get pensive waiting for Paula’s 4 o’clock bible study.
He needed to tell her that Jerry had hung up on him, and he didn’t want to risk calling their house again and having him answer. They hadn’t spoken about anything on Monday. The girls didn’t know their parents were in counseling, but the middle-schooler, Tammy, clearly sensed something wasn’t right. She played, “Ode to Joy,” the simplest piece, wrong and her resolution went on for measures; she’d hit extra black keys that mucked up the melody. She found dissonant notes that made it impossible to remember that exultant phrase.
Eigen did not tell Paula that he thought Tammy was being passive aggressive towards him.
He went into the bathroom and brushed the wine-purple from his teeth. He pulled the grey dress pants and the white starched shirt from the hook on the door and put them on over his undershirt and boxers. As he stepped from the house the sun was still low on the horizon. It gave the sky that dark cerulean look a cloudless sky takes on at dawn and dusk.
He started his Lincoln Towncar and turned left from his driveway onto Inkster. His eyes ached from the wine and lack of sleep. He was low on gas so he pulled into the Speedway station at the corner of Sibley and Inkster. It was full of the nine to fivers gassing up the car and getting ready for their long commute into Dearborn or Detroit. He started asking himself why they moved this far out and dealt with the commuting, fast food, and traffic, the heart attack fodder that took years off of a life, then he remembered the yokel who cut his grass telling him that the advantage of New Boston was that you didn’t have any blacks or Arabs.
He decided to go in and grab some coffee. He pulled up behind a man gassing an F-250 diesel and waited. When the guy finished and started the behemoth truck, revving it excessively, he pulled up to the pump. As he pumped his gas, he noticed a runnel of water pouring from the downspout and realized it must’ve rained while he was asleep. The Huron Creek and River would be high near the town of South Rockwood, and he had the sudden urge to see the water roaring toward Lake Erie.
Inside the gas station the scene was predictably chaotic. The white collar professionals were paying for their gas and coffee. A couple old retirees were drinking coffee at the little breakfast bar and flirting with the girls behind the counter. They wore the basic uniform of men in these parts, Wrangler jeans, hunter’s-orange suspenders, and mesh baseball caps with the names of race car drivers or landscaping companies printed on the front.
Eigen poured coffee from a glass container that said “Dark Roast,” though he knew this meant nothing. All the coffee here tasted like hot water. The countertop was a mess of spilled sugar and a congealed sludge of cream and Splenda. He set his cup down to grab a napkin and a lid. People get sloppier by the generation, he thought to himself as he brushed the grains of sugar from the bottom of his cup with a napkin.
Eigen took his coffee black, something he had picked up from his father. Mr. Eigen had been in the CBA Theater during WWII. He never said much about it except that as a soldier they didn’t get cream and sugar in their coffee and he for one never missed it.
He stood in line and waited. One of the old men at the coffee bar, a retired orchard keeper and owner, turned to Sarah, one of the girls behind the register, and shouted, “Darling, when you get that ten minute break of yours, you and me can go in the back room together and just fall in love.”
Eigen smiled. When he stepped up to the register, Sarah apologized. “I’m sorry you have to listen to these dirty old men in here, but just think how I feel having to deal with this stuff all day.”
Eigen chuckled. “It’s all in good fun,” he said as he handed her his money and got his change. He turned to the fellows at the coffee bar before he walked out and said, “Go easy on her gentlemen,” to which they chuckled good-naturedly and waved.
He started his car and took a sip from the weak coffee before setting it in the cup holder. He turned on the stereo tape deck and Jerry Lee’s deep voice came through, “The old home town looks the same, as I step down from the train…” He turned left out of the gas station and headed south down Inkster, away from the city of Taylor and the church. He wouldn’t be needed there until the afternoon anyway, he told himself.
When he came to Huron River Drive, the sun was coming up. He watched the first traces of it on the surface of the river. The water table was high after those hours of rain and the current was swift. He opened the Lincoln up to about 45, 15 over the speed limit there. It felt good. He loved the way the big car handled, like a river boat ambling downstream. Near the dam at Flatrock Park he had to stop for a train. He turned the stereo off and listened to the whistle and the rumble of the wheels. The train cars were packed with Fords from the Flatrock Mustang Plant, and once in awhile he could see a glint of paint through the mesh aluminum sides. Eigen drank his coffee and leaned back into the warm leather seat. He thought about the water and the land, how everything ran southeast toward the lake. How the glaciers that had become the lakes those epochs ago shaped the land as well as the pathways of the industry these people revered beyond any rational comprehension.
The railroad gates lifted and he drove through. A few miles up the road he merged onto I-75. Southbound traffic was light as everyone was going toward the city, not away from it, this time of day.
On the freeway Eigen could sense the lake to the east of the sprawling maize fields of Monroe County. He exited onto Rockwood Road and turned right. There was a small city park on the west end where you could sit on a bench and watch the river. It had been a mild November so far and the weather was comfortable for sitting outside scoping birds in his binoculars and listening to the water.
Eigen pulled the Lincoln into the lot. He took his binoculars from the glove box and stepped out of the car. The ground was still wet. He could hear the river a hundred yards away, a sound like dying leaves blown from their limbs in an autumn storm.
He walked along the asphalt pathway, his binoculars dangling from the string around his neck. As Paula’s image slipped into his mind, he realized that the half hour drive was about the longest he had gone without thinking of her in months. The water was mud-roiled and green with little bits of white spray where the current charged over boulders. This was what William James had meant when he wrote of “the heavy indifference of water.” Eventually the land would come to it. If the river wanted to it could swell into the park and cover these benches and play structures. This was difficult to imagine, but it had happened many times all along this watershed. Eigen remembered visiting the metro park after the spring flood of a couple years ago and seeing picnic tables and flotsam in the branches of small trees. The problem was that much of the earth here was made up of Tedrow Loam, a soil that does not absorb well but tends to table moisture. It didn’t take much rain to give the river muscle.
He neared the boxwood thicket at the end of the little path and glassed the bare grey branches of the trees for birds. He liked seeing anything of the raptor variety best. Once while driving to a conference in Toledo, Ohio he had seen a bald eagle fishing above the Maumee River. He was so fascinated he almost veered beneath a semi-truck going seventy. In this little park though, he would take a sleeping owl or a red-tailed hawk, even a little Cooper’s hawk would be a treat.
Glassing an oak full of crows, he went over what he would say to Paula. It was clear that her husband wasn’t going to cooperate and try to work on their issues. It didn’t mean either of them were bad people, he would tell her.
But their main problem, in his mind, was that Jerry was a rube. It was probably fortunate for her that he was uncooperative (he would leave this out when they met). He had seen it before. A beautiful, intelligent woman marries an erstwhile sports star; the fact that he once did something relatively meaningless incredibly well drowns out what she might have to say with bombast; he loves her for her prettiness though and has no notion of her beauty. An old story dating back to David and before.
Was it really possible for him to move in though? Would it be the kind of thing he could lose his job over? He cared what the congregation might think, sure, but what he really feared was the football player. The clown. That guy could break him in half and was daft enough to do it. He thought of how steamed up he got at their last session, swearing and stomping out like a kid throwing a fit. One of the first times he met Jerry he was playing with his daughter Tammy and Paula told him Jerry was just a big kid. Eigen knew he didn’t have to do much, just a disapproving hint here and there to Paula then the nothing beneath Jerry’s pale translucent skin would show. Man will be his own undoing, he had once told his congregation.
Eigen looked through the binoculars across the river. There was a short bank then a thick grove of elm, ash and pin oak. He spotted an owl asleep halfway up an ash. It would awaken just before dark to feast on voles and mice. These small creatures were easy prey this time of year when there wasn’t any snow.
He walked to his car. It had been a successful trip. A tree full of silent black crows, a sleeping owl. Eigen took the interstate back to the church. He pulled into the parking lot just before one o’clock. He hadn’t eaten and felt a bit shaky.
Inside the church Dennis was pushing a dust mop over the atrium floor. When Eigen walked through, Dennis paused and waved. “Good afternoon, Pastor Eigen.”
“Good afternoon, Dennis. How goes it?”
Dennis leaned his chin against the mop handle and sighed. “I talked to Jerry Kokielka last night, pastor.”
“He seems like he’s in bad shape. He thinks his marriage is ending, and he said he felt like it was your fault. Some terrible things, pastor.” He paused and shook the dust off of the mop. “I didn’t believe a word of what he said, Pastor Eigen, but he seems like he’s out of his mind with worry and he’s making stuff up about people now. I told him that was the wrong way to go about it, but he was pretty upset.”
“Yes, this is a sad case,” Eigen said. “I had hoped I could help them through counseling, but I don’t think Jerry is ready to be helped.” He shook his head and looked down at his shoes. There was a bit of mud around his soles from his walk in the park. “I just hope he asks for the Lord’s guidance before it is too late to save his marriage. Why do you suppose he shared this with you, Dennis?”
“Well he was just calling to tell me he was quitting our bible study and wasn’t gonna be there tomorrow. I gotta admit I made him tell me why, but I wasn’t trying to get gossip out of him. It just isn’t like him. Usually he’s one of the first ones there and always has stuff to talk about.” Dennis shook his head again. “I just hope he gets it together and comes back. He’s a good guy.”
“We’ll pray for him, Dennis. That’s all you can do for someone when they get like this is to put their case before the Lord.” Eigen wondered what the difference was between Dennis and Jerry. He liked and respected Dennis. He could never stomach Jerry, yet they were similar. They loved football, and they both loved to lecture pedantically to the other men at bible study. Eigen had overheard them a time or two. He had to admit that sometimes he liked to eavesdrop on the men’s bible study group for entertainment. Inevitably he’d stroll by at the point when Dennis was using a baseball metaphor to discuss God’s will. He seemed to remember something about the preacher being the leadoff man and the Lord being the clean-up hitter. He once heard Jerry remark that he had learned a lot about sales from Jesus’ parables, and he wanted to puke. In Dennis’ case, though, the shallowness never struck him as a deficiency of soul.
“You’re right, pastor,” Dennis said as he started on the next row.
When he had first hired him, Eigen told him the atrium was the most important part of the church and to keep it clean at all times. Dennis ran a dust mop over it then mopped it at least three times a day. Then in the evening he’d diligently run the electronic buffer over the tiles. Eigen knew Dennis was a fine custodian who would also offer any information he had gleaned, any speck of dirt that a pastor might need to examine. Eigen had built entire sermons around things Dennis had told him congregants were struggling with.
As Dennis went up and down the rows of the atrium floor with his dust mop, he saw a trail of mud where the pastor had just walked. He got the small broom and the dust pan and swept the loose, dried mud into a pile. “Rained like hell last night,” he said to himself.
When Eigen got inside his office, Lydia handed him some notes and told him his son had been trying to get ahold of him that morning, that he had called the house first and then had called the church twice. Eigen thanked her and told her that when Mrs. Kokielka got there for bible study to send her in for a moment; he had to tell her something regarding one of her students.
He picked up his copy of William James. It didn’t speak to him like it had the other day. Too general, he thought. He couldn’t wrap his head around James’ distinction between the religious and the merely experiential. Eigen knew of people who responded to the world solemnly and gravely, but few who responded so without an accompanying curse or jest.
Paula was coming, and until she was here, nothing would be clear. And when she arrived, nothing more would be clear. Eigen grabbed a napkin from the stack near the coffee maker. He wiped away the spittle from his beard. He had noticed this happening lately, strings of saliva running down his chin, beads of spit in his beard. Initially he had dismissed it as something that happened only when he went into some hard thinking, quandaries in The Book of Job, drier passages in William James. But then he caught himself drooling while listening to Bach alone in his living room. Behold now the behemoth that I have made with you, God said to Job.
Eigen’s thoughts were interrupted when Lydia rapped against the door and announced, “Pastor Eigen, Paula is here to meet with you.”
Eigen spilled the book on his desk without marking the page. “Yes, yes, send her in.”
A minute later Paula’s mane of brown hair filled the doorway. She held her bible in the crook of her left arm and a canvass bag around her right shoulder.
“Hi, Paula, have a seat,” he said.
She leaned the bag and the bible against the chair leg and sat down.
“I called Jerry,” he offered.
“I know,” she said. “He told me.” She pulled her hair behind her ears.
As he watched her, he wanted to walk around his desk and kiss her. Oddly he was thinking of Joe Namath that time he gave the drunken interview and threatened to kiss the sideline reporter multiple times on national television. He stayed in the chair behind his desk and waited. He hoped the urge to kiss a woman didn’t make him drool.
Paula wasn’t sure how guarded she should be. He was already involved with their problems, and she felt like he was on her side. Beyond this, there had been more than a couple Monday nights when they had spoken of faith and matters of the soul, spiritual doubts as the dark blue light of dusk crept over his farm that anything she told him about Jerry would seem somehow surface level, which she supposed made sense given how surface level their relationship had been now for years.
“Pastor Timothy, he’s crazy. After you called he screamed at me, accusing me of falling for you, saying that you were only counseling us so you could suggest a separation and move in on me.”
Eigen expected her to cry, but she didn’t. She merely looked down toward her feet. Her legs were crossed and her right leg bobbed nervously. He hesitated to talk.
Paula waited. She thought of Jerry’s red-faced anger and the things he said about the pastor. “I told him it was crazy,” she said again.
Eigen came around the desk and sat next to her. “I didn’t get very far when I tried to talk to him. He just hung up and told me to leave him alone. I don’t think I can be of any help, and I’m afraid I’ve failed you both.”
“No, you didn’t fail us. Jerry is just being unreasonable, and to tell you the truth I haven’t loved him for years. I’ve wanted to, but I can’t anymore. I try, but I can’t control how I feel, not even for the sake of the girls. I just looked at him one day five years ago and realized that he was a simpleton, that there wasn’t anything there. He was standing on the back patio of my parents’ house addressing all the guys, rehashing a football story and I felt ashamed to be with him. He’s loyal, sure, but so are some dogs. I want someone who understands me spritually.”
Eigen nodded. “You’ve got to tell him how you feel. In all my experience counseling, there is no way to make it work if one of the spouses isn’t happy. I can’t see your marriage working under these circumstances, especially if Jerry isn’t willing to put the work in.” He paused to watch the flurries out the window. The wind seemed to hold them buoyant, like ash rising from a bonfire. When she didn’t respond he turned to her again. “You need to know that you haven’t done anything wrong. That’s important. You’ve done nothing wrong.” Eigen knew no decent counselor would say this. Most issues in a relationship are 50/50 or something approaching that. But here there were three people and no precipice for him.
She smiled. “Thank you. You have no idea how good it feels to hear you say that.” She glanced at her watch and then the door. “I should go. Bible study starts in five minutes.” She stood up from her chair. “Pastor, would it be possible to meet up with you this week somewhere other than the church? It’s just that I know people are talking about Jerry and me, and it would be easier to discuss these problems somewhere else. I know this is asking a lot.”
“I’m usually free on Thursday evenings,” he blurted out. The veneer had been stripped to its rotten pulp from the beginning anyway, and it was probably a good idea to get away from the church, especially given Dennis’ propensity to talk.
Read Cal’s interview about Tractors, his novel in progress.