Aug 13, 2008

The Beginning (of a short story)

It’s a humid August evening. I am unclipping the sun-dried laundry from the nylon line drawn between two maple trees. I hear the phone ring. Surely one of the kids will pick it up. It rings again. Or maybe Joshua will realize that he can, in fact, pick up the phone sitting on his desk, right where he is working on Sunday’s sermon. And rings again. Joshua hollers down from the bedroom window. “Maggie! The phone is ringing.” He says this as if I can’t hear it. As if I am the only person that can answer the phone.

I hurry into the bright kitchen as fast as my chunky legs can take me. The setting sun reflects off the lemony, flowered wallpaper and blinds me for just a moment. I snatch up the receiver just as the answering machine clicks on. It’s Dorothy. Breathing heavily, I fumble to turn off the answering machine. “Hello.”

“Maggie!” I can tell that Dorothy is out of breath as well, although her breathing is deep and full; mine is shallow and thin. “I have great news! Bill gave me a trip to New York City next weekend and tickets to see Les Mis on Broadway.”

I grit my teeth, my shoulders tense and I can feel a ball of stress forming at the base of my neck. Dorothy’s husband is always doing thoughtful things for her. Why doesn’t Joshua ever do anything nice for me? Why is it that my whole life revolves around Joshua’s plans? I clear my throat, feeling painfully ashamed for such an un-Christian reaction. “That’s great,” I say and wish that I meant it.

“Bill gave me two tickets, Maggie. I want you to come with me,” she says.

“What?” I squeak. This is a joke, right? I risk a laugh. “Are you serious?” Dorothy’s not one to play games and she isn’t now. Goosebumps run up my arms. I have never been to New York City. As Dorothy rambles excitedly about the trip, I chew on a number two pencil. How can I explain to Joshua that I really need this vacation?

I slowly walk into the bedroom gripping the heavy, wicker laundry basket tightly to my chest. My husband’s long frame is bent over his desk; a small, antique lamp sits on the edge, illuminating his work. Although his chiseled physique has softened over past eighteen years, he’s still a handsome man. When we met at Oral Roberts University, Joshua was someone I never thought I would be good enough for. I had long, wild hair like Janis Joplin and I actually liked her music. Joshua was respected by the other budding theologians and all the cashmere girls melted if he noticed them. But he never let himself get distracted by the feminine wiles of the giggling Barbie dolls. Those girls wanted the public attention and admiration of being a pastor’s wife. In the world of ORU in the seventies, the most well-regarded place for a woman was to be the wife of a successful minister. I never wanted all the phony attention and I’m not sure what Joshua saw in me.

Joshua doesn’t look up when I walk into the room. He doesn’t even ask who was on the phone. These are minor irritations, like gnats, that he brushes off so he can focus on his real work, which has nothing to do with getting the kids to school or cooking or doing the laundry, or making sure the house looks pristine when the ladies prayer group comes over on Saturdays. I wonder if he notices anything that happens in this house, all of the things that I do for this family. Am I wrong for feeling so neglected? What would he do if I wasn’t here? I wipe the beads of sweat off my face. I shouldn’t feel so sorry for myself. Maybe it’s good enough to be married to an honest man.

One of the characteristics I found endearing when I met Joshua is that he is never concerned about “the things of the world,” as he says. He preaches, at the pulpit and in the home, that “we must be heavenly minded.” He’s no hypocrite. That I admire, but I don’t understand why he can’t see that other people are affected by this world. Before I lose my nerve, I blurt it out. “Dorothy has invited me to go to New York with her.”

Joshua pulls his reading glasses off and clears his throat. “Maggie, can’t you see that I am busy with God’s work? I don’t have time for this.” He turns back to his thick Bible concordance. “Neither do you.”

“It won’t cost us much,” I say. I rub at a grass stain that didn’t come out of Abby’s jeans. “I haven’t had a vacation in years.”

Joshua puts his glasses back on and peers down at the tiny print. “I will not repeat myself, Maggie. Indulging in frivolities is not proper conduct for the wife of a pastor.”

“Dorothy’s husband bought us the tickets so he obviously thinks it is okay,” I mutter. I busy my shaking hands by folding towels, noticing that they are beginning to fray at the ends. A lavender smell wafts up from the stack of sun-warmed laundry.

“Dorothy’s husband may be an elder, but he is not God’s voice! I am.” Joshua slams his fist on the desk. The desk lamp teeters. I rush over and it falls into my hands.

There is nothing you can say in response to a statement like that. All you can do is shovel the mounds of words into the compost pile of your stomach. Momma said there would be fights only won in secret. I think she meant that sometimes whoever has the last word isn’t necessarily the winner.

“Careful.” I force my voice to be gentle as I set the lamp gently back on the desk. “That was Momma’s lamp when she was a little girl, you know.” I feel Joshua relax at the sound of my soft tone. I have always had this one power over him.

“I apologize,” he says gruffly. His quietly rigid voice is like the ticking of an old clock. He is silent for a few minutes as I finish folding the laundry. The tension subsides. “If it’s that important to you, I’ll pray about.” He leans in to touch the pliable skin of my arm. His hand is soggy with perspiration. “I’ll let you know tomorrow.”

Shrugging off his hairy arms, I gather the stack of towels and march towards the linen closet in the hallway. What does God have to do with going to New York City? The church can survive without me there for one whole weekend.

What did I think my life would be like at thirty-eight? In my girlish fantasies I was Ginger Rogers, even though I was a quiet girl in public. When I was sixteen, my music instructor said I had the voice of an angel. After I married, my sisters said now I had the name of a Broadway star: Margaret Mae Singer. I was named after Aunt Mae and Momma. Like them, I am just a wife and mother. Unlike them, I earned a college degree. But instead of performing, I’m only a music teacher. Even as a teacher, I am referred to as Joshua’s wife.

I rub at the aching knot in my shoulder. I didn’t know what I had signed up for when I married Joshua and moved to New Haven, Ohio. Before Joshua started the church, he used to ask for my opinions. But over the past few years, he’s become more and more tyrannical. Joshua doesn’t expect me to be ignorant but if I disagree with him, then I have been disobedient. My duty is to be infinitely pious and effortlessly beautiful. I am neither. Maybe I was trying to be when Joshua and I got married, but I just don’t have the energy anymore.

It’s not just Joshua that treats me this way. Linda Bartlett demands that I eagerly participate in her endless parade of missionary campaigns and Dr. Edmond Windsor thinks I have endless energy to attend his two hour choir practices. I must be willing to lead if necessary but always under the wise head of the family; the compassionate shepherd of our congregation.

I restock the toilet paper in the beach-themed bathroom. People underestimate me. They think that I am just like them because I don’t voice my dissent. They believe the plastic façade I portray. They don’t see the real me: the me that is angry at God. They don’t know that I think perhaps Christians are a bit too critical, a bit too relentless in their “god-given” mission to save the world. They are so busy being perfect that they don’t really see anything. I’ve been growing slowly in the background. As a simple wallflower, I notice the real things.

I see the coy glances between my son, the blue-eyed fawn, and that pretty boy at the Gap. Francis always looks for him when we go to the mall. He is forever in desperate need of something—a new polo shirt or a pair of socks—but only from the Gap.

I hang up Francis’ ironed shirts in his meticulously organized closet and I tell no one. I eat donuts. Traditional powdered donuts out of the box with coffee. Cream-filled donuts with a tall glass of whole milk. Chocolate donuts by the handful. I eat apple fritters from Kroger’s, fried pop-able holes from Dunkin’ Donuts, sickening sweet honey buns from Mrs. Price on Fifth Street.

The donut obsession started when I became pregnant with Francis. Joshua stopped being intimate. He said he was worried that it would hurt the precious miracle inside of me. I knew he thought I was disgusting because I sure thought so. I had gas. I vomited every morning. I turned on the radio so he wouldn’t hear me. I had to pee constantly, like a nervous puppy.

My children are nearly grown now—or at least they think they are—but I still like to check in on them before I go to bed.

Abigail must still be awake. I hear her talking behind her partially closed door. I peer in through the crack. An assortment of stuffed animals and dolls sit obediently on the bed. Abby’s pink teddy bear, which I had to sew the ear back on when the neighbor’s Rottweiler pup tore it off, sits next to her American Girl doll with the red hair. My daughter paces at the foot of the bed, reading from the Psalms in her sparkling clear voice. Is it normal for a thirteen-year-old to read Bible passages to her toys?

I’ve gradually stopped reading my Bible. What is the point? When Francis and Abigail were small and their small hands and runny noses were everywhere and I had to watch them every minute, they would sap all of the energy out of me. I had nothing left to argue with Joshua when he rallied for political causes and boycotted Disney. After they finally fell asleep, I would kneel for hours praying until my knees hurt. I cried until there were no more tears. God never answered my prayer. Joshua doesn’t see me. He doesn’t know me. I’ve tried and tried to be everything for him and I’ve got nothing to show for it.

Except my children. Sometimes I still whisper a prayer for Francis and Abby. If anything, maybe God will hear those.

I listen to Abby’s hopeful voice, which is clear and delicate like a champagne glass, but not many would know that. She has a crippling fear of speaking in public. When Abby was in the fourth grade, Joshua entered her essay titled, “America’s Endangered Species: Children” in a state-wide competition. When we went to the finals in Cleveland, Abby discovered that she would have to read the essay on the lack of morality in entertainment in front of a few hundred people. She locked herself in the hotel bathroom for five hours until Joshua convinced her that she did not have to continue with the competition.

When she turned thirteen, she took a vow of silence for forty days. No one at church even noticed. She told us, the day after her vow ended, that she had wanted to hear the voice of God. Francis asked her if she did. Abigail said that while she was silent the birds sang with more gusto, the trees were louder, and she could see faces better.


Anonymous said...

Yes, Myopic Books is a great place to start. They have a poetry series run by Adam Levin, one of my program's professors. Not too far from there is Quimby's. I saw my prof. Elizabeth Crane read there, she's magic, check out her website and blog for more Chicago writerly things. Group books at The Book Cellar in Lincoln Park. The Green Mill has a famous Poetry Slam wayyy on the North Side, started by Mark Smith the father of slam. There's one more that I'm struggling to remember.... once it comes to me I'll let you know.


Special Agent FiFi said...

Hey there. Thanks for introducing me to your blog. Can't wait to read more of it. I'll add you to my blog list. My email is if you want to conversate with an NYC writer. Take care ~ FiFi