Featured in Colorado Review
Published Spring 2017
Two midwestern villages—I’ll call them Arno and Morgan—face off against each other across the banks of the Bainbrydge River. Their feud is old and largely undefined, like the one that exists between my uncle Harry and cousin Al or the one in my nine-year marriage. The air between the two villages is clear and cloudless, but the water at their feet is tainted from years of industrial contamination and good old-fashioned septic waste. I stand on the riverbank and try very hard not to think about sewage. I am there to clean up the groundwater.
I’ve studied the groundwater contamination in Arno for over seven years as an environmental consultant, and it’s finally time to start remediation. My job this particular day is to set temporary water-level gauges in the Bainbrydge River. The September 11 attacks happened just a few weeks before, and I am keenly aware that I look suspicious—a woman wearing a Tyvek moonsuit and waders, juggling a stack of steel posts, fuchsia survey tape, and a rubber mallet. Pickup truck drivers give me you’re-not-from-around-here looks; so do occasional leisure boaters, who I hope to Jesus are not eating any fish from this river. The Bainbrydge River is sluggish, a sulfury, over-hard-boiled-egg green. My steel gauges suck right down into its bottom.
I’m staying alone in Morgan in an unmanned bed-and-breakfast. The house was built by Robert Morgan, founder of Morgan Village and a general in the War of 1812. It is haunted. I’ve stayed here before with other engineers, but this trip I’m working with a construction crew that prefers the cheaper accommodations of Hunters’ Lodge. There is bloodstained dirt in front of Hunters’ Lodge. I prefer the solitude of the haunted Morgan B&B. I am away from Denver, from my home and my husband, for three months. I have three months to think.
A skinny man leans out the window of a primer-coated Chevy. “When are you gonna be done here?”
Consultant Tip: There is typically no reason to answer any question in a direct manner.
“We’ll be a while.”
He points to the front office of my client’s building, a window factory that has operated in Arno since 1899 but is in the process of shutting down. “Are they ever gonna open again?” His brown eyes wet as he turns away from me. We both look toward the beep sounds of a backhoe in front of the factory. My crew is ripping up the concrete foundation where inground wood-preservative tanks once sat.
“Honestly, I don’t know,” I say, although I know that we both know I’m lying.
People from Arno rarely seem to mix with people from Morgan. Although their populations are both small—under eighteen hundred—Morgan is the big town, the big brother, the money bearer. Arno is where you go for oily manufacturing jobs and hard liquor. Two bridges connect the villages—the new one from the ’70s, which feels engineered and solidly riveted, and the old, rickety one from forever ago. Foul water flows underneath both.
I am not a water person. No one in my family is, other than Uncle Harry and Cousin Al. Family lore has it that Harry and Al originally met on a boat in the Pacific during WWII, long before they were related. They hated each other. Harry couldn’t stand Al’s megaphone mouth and mermaid bicep tattoo. Al couldn’t stand Harry’s snotty looks. They thought it was all over after the war, this hatred. But a year later, Al married Mae, and Mae’s aunt married Harry. The feud between Harry and Al at family picnics was always open and honest and palpable. I admired it. I wish for a feud in my marriage—something I can rage about or hook a reason to, something factual.
I know the B&B is haunted because I have seen things. Felt things. Things I can’t scientifically explain or engineer out of my brain. Doors opening and closing on their own. A coldness in my pink bedroom—an abnormal temperature that feels more like an object than a meteorological condition. Every evening I enter the house through the back patio door, drop my briefcase and work shoes in the mudroom, and promptly address the spirits. “Thank you for letting me stay here,” I say to the house. I speak the words loudly, in case my ghosts are in need of hearing aids.
In the late 1980s, the EPA tested Arno’s drinking-water well for contamination. Consultant Tip: Avoid the word “contamination.” Substitute the word “impacts.” The drinking-water well was impacted. Arno drilled a new well a few hundred feet upstream. It too was impacted. Arno went much farther upstream and drilled three new wells. These wells were clean. Over the course of the next several years, monitoring wells were sunk in people’s driveways, in the streets and alleyways between homes, and inside and outside the window factory. The water in almost all of these locations was impacted. How long had it been impacted? What had they all been drinking? We’d been hired to fix it. Could we really clean it up?
The phones and faxes and desks are long gone from the window factory, so I drive across the village to the still-operating warranty center to send a fax. Mike, a tall, beanpole type, runs the warranty center. He sprints and opens the door for me.
“Howdy, ma’am.” His drawl is buttermilk.
I like the sawdusty smell of Mike’s shop, old wood churned into new.
“Someday, Mike, you will drop the ‘ma’am’ shit and just call me Michele.”
He index-finger-wags me. “Language.”
Mike is a born-again Christian. Whenever I see his maroon Camry pull up to our job site, I warn the crew to curb the F-bombs.
“Sorry, Mike.” I sit on the desk and weed through the fax of lab data. It is not good news. The crew will have to dig deeper. We are unearthing piles and piles of soil, putting it in large roll-off bins, where we will then add acid and peroxide to destroy the chemicals that have been impacting the groundwater. We will be here longer than we’ve planned.
Feuds are a funny, fickle thing, and if I am going to start one in my marriage, then selling our house seems to be an easy target. I’m in Denver for a long break over Thanksgiving. Todd stands at the kitchen island and picks dried onionskins off black granite tiles. It’s snowing outside, but Todd wears gym shorts and his favorite T-shirt—Snowboarding, because other sports only require one ball.
“We need to sell this house,” I say.
Todd looks up at me and then continues to pick at the granite. He’d hand-selected each of these tiles when we were building this house, the dream house. The dream house had been on schedule and only slightly over budget. It hadn’t been a problem, the $2,407 mortgage payment, until I’d broken from my business partnership three months ago and gone solo. Business divorce. Todd hasn’t worked for most of our nine years of marriage. That would be an easy fight to pick, but it’s a certain ego-crusher. I don’t have the taste for that.
“Once the Arno job is over, I’m just not sure what’s next,” I say.
Todd says nothing. He wipes the counter with a damp cloth and then buffs the tiles dry with a dish towel. The granite looks new and shiny, except for the dulled ghost of a lemon I’d once let sit too long on the counter.
I clear my throat. “Did you hear me?”
“You are probably right,” he says.
This will not be a fight. I will have to find another one.
I don’t know why we stopped having sex two years into our marriage. But we did. I recall trying to talk about it twice—the first time, Todd said that my breath was bad. I fortified with Listerine and dental floss, but no changes. The second time I brought it up, we were in bed.
“Is it your job? I mean, not having one? Is that what’s happening here?”
Todd turned away from me, silent. I could feel his body tremble as he fell asleep. I never brought it up again.
I shower and put on a robe. The thought of selling the dream house leads me to a nap, even though I’ve been up for less than two hours. Todd reaches for my robe’s belt just as I get to our bed. It has been seven years. Seven years. I recoil; Todd walks away. Now, lying here, the thought of Todd’s hand on my robe makes me queasy. Creeped out. Truth is, I’d rather sleep with ghosts.
I am back in Arno after Thanksgiving, but the B&B is closed. Marshall, the owner, was arrested for embezzlement of bank funds over the holiday. By day, he’d been vice president of the village bank. By evening, he delivered trays of fresh fruit, yogurt, and orange juice to my B&B’s refrigerator.
Bobby, my foreman, smiles as I hand him a Styrofoam cup of Conoco coffee.
“Did you hear about the squisher?” he asks.
Bobby’s eyes are the color of the turbid Bainbrydge River after a storm. “Yeah, the guy who runs that fancy bed-and-breakfast you stay at. That gay guy.”
My construction-management philosophy is to fight fire with a flame accelerant. If the guys think of me as weak, it is game over. This crew is from New York. I channel my inner Philadelphia. “His name is Marshall, Bobby. What the fuck do you care if he’s gay?”
Bobby throws his hands up in the air. “Hey, hey. Chill.” He sips his coffee—no cream but four packs of artificial sweetener. “My brother’s a squisher.” Bobby’s eyes go soft at the edges. “We don’t talk much.”
I picture Marshall in his Cole Haan loafers, no socks. The way he’d swirled ice cubes in his gin and tonic glass the night he and his partner, Louis, sat on the back patio of the B&B with me and told ghost stories.
“Lookit, Bobby. ‘Squisher’ is offensive. Knock it off.”
Bobby tips his coffee cup in my direction and heads toward the backhoe.
I drive over to the warranty center, load dream-house listing-agreement papers in the fax. The pages choke their way through.
“You okay?” Mike asks.
“I’m selling my house.” I wipe my face with the back of my hand. It smells like latex and baby powder.
“You don’t seem happy about it.”
“It’s complicated,” I say.
Before I’d left Denver to come back to the job site, Todd and I looked in the Highlands district in north Denver for a smaller house. It’s an older area that’s been revitalized with hipster restaurants, indie clothes boutiques, and a cheese shop. I can picture myself walking into Highlands with my laptop, working from the coffee house or even from a high table at the wine bar. But the houses we look at smell of old milk and have steel bars on the first-floor windows.
Our realtor, Pat, who’d witnessed the triumph of the dream house, tells us not to be discouraged. “You’ll find something,” she says in the 10 X 11 parlor of a 1930s bungalow.
I look at Todd and see the vertical window bars behind his head, not entirely unaware of the symbolism.
We are back in the dream house, sitting in a living room the size of a pool hall.
“That last house wasn’t that bad,” Todd says. “We can knock out a few walls.”
“You really think that will help? Jesus Christ, there were bars on the windows, Todd. Bars.”
The thing about Todd is that he is easily overrun. Any explosive language—a simple “Jesus Christ” or an F-bomb—will shut him down, lights out. He refuses to engage.
“You expect me to live like that—in a fucking zoo?” I look at Todd and see he is already gone. His whole body is turned away from me as he stares out the wall of glass windows that face Mount Evans. He knows every inch of this place, every moss rock on its five acres. I know that, in all of this, he is the one who will lose more. Todd’s silence is overwhelmed by the whistle of wind through the weather stripping on the base of the deck door.
Mike comes over to the front desk and rests a hand on my shoulder. It does not feel sexual; it feels like what comfort is supposed to feel like.
“Come to church with me one Sunday,” he says.
“Oh, Mike, you know I’m not that type.”
Mike squeezes my shoulder. “What are you afraid of? It can’t hurt you.”
The bell on the door to the warranty center jingles and Mike’s hand hops off my shoulder. In walks an old man dressed in farmer’s clothes, the smell of hay still on him. Mike grabs a bent window screen from the old man’s hands.
“Did you hear they arrested that fag?” the old man asks.
I whip around to face him, but Mike holds his free hand up to me.
“It’s okay, Michele.” Mike turns to the farmer. “Now, Bill. You’ve known Marshall all his life. It’s a real shame, this situation.”
Farmer Bill pulls on the waistband of his Carhartts. “Boy like that’ll enjoy jail. Built-in boyfriends.”
I cannot stop myself. “Jesus Christ!”
“Do not take the Lord’s name in vain in my shop,” Mike says.
I feel the flame accelerant inside me take hold. “All of the ignorant things you just heard him say, and that’s what bothers you? My ‘Jesus Christ’?”
Farmer Bill gives me a long squint. “People that defend those queers are probably one of ’em.”
Mike stares at me. “You’d better go.”
I grab my fax and watch Farmer Bill over my shoulder as I leave.
He exposes tiny Chiclet teeth. “Get on, Sinner.”
Truth is, Farmer Bill is partially correct. I am a sinner. I am plotting my marriage’s end. I look at men and wonder what it would feel like to have sex again. I think if I could do it—even just kiss another man—it would break Todd and me. Maybe a simple fuck. If I’m capable of that, I can leave.
I think about Marshall and Louis—the time Louis’s hand lingered when he brushed lint off Marshall’s navy blazer, how Marshall silently acknowledged the touch. It was as if the two of them knew exactly how to move within silence—like maybe they’d had to live in silence for so long that it had become some sort of sacred pod between them. I think of the pod of silence between Todd and me. It is an uncomfortable pod. It is contaminated.
The Morgan B&B is closed, and I refuse to stay at the bloody Hunters’ Lodge. I find an 1800s-era sawmill that’s been converted into an inn about ten miles south of Morgan, in the Village of Dax. It is not haunted.
I fill my room in the Dax Inn with ghosts—my own. Ghosts of boyfriends past, the ones I let go with silent, chickenshit clues like not returning phone calls.
Consultant Tip: It’s best to break bad news with a pillow—something soft and hopeful that the recipient can comfort-clutch.
My standard pillow-line to my former boyfriends: “You’ll be happier without me.” These are my ghosts—boyfriend ghosts with hollow, unsatisfied eyes. Todd deserves answers, but somehow I know he will not even bring himself to ask the questions.
I sample groundwater on 12th Street, drop a rope with a plastic tube tied to it down a well, listen for the plunk of water and the gurgle as the tube fills. The Beatles are on my rental PT Cruiser’s radio—George Harrison’s “Something.” George Harrison died the weekend before, and the radio stations are 24/7 Beatles.
Bobby’s F-150 comes around the corner. He leans out the window. “The peroxide’s here.”
Finally, we’ll start the soil and groundwater treatment. Ten days—maybe less if the rain holds out—until we’re finished.
“How about the acid? Did it show up too?”
Bobby gives me the thumbs-up. He normally does not smile—I suspect it’s because his teeth are a bit jacked up—but now he does, and I know we’re at that point in the job where it tips and the crew slides down into the just-get-it-done-and-get-out-of-here mode. You can get a lot of work out of a crew in the early stages of this downhill slide. Turn on the generator and overhead lights, work until your steel-toed shoes make your toes go numb. But the late stages—right before the actual leaving—can be hell.
The next day, volunteer firemen from Morgan line up on our treatment pad for my safety briefing. We are using hydrogen peroxide to clean the impacted soil and groundwater; the same stuff that bubbles and stings when you put it on a cut, but in a very concentrated form. It is a strong oxidant—a major fire accelerator—and the firemen listen intently to my briefing. Some of these men look like Farmer Bill. I hope to God we do not need their help.
After the briefing, the fire chief comes over to talk to me.
“How long did I drink polluted water?” he asks.
Remember the first (and arguably most important) Consultant Tip: No need to answer the question as posed.
“The drinking water is clean,” I say. “It’s tested monthly and it meets all EPA standards.”
The fire chief grunts. “Yeah, well, it kills me that our water well got polluted. Buying water from Arno, well, that just doesn’t set right. Like sucking on a secondhand straw.”
A few years earlier, unrelated groundwater impacts were discovered in Morgan’s well field. It was determined to be cheaper to buy water from Arno and pipe it across the Bainbrydge than to install a new well field. Baby brother is now feeding the most valuable, arguably, commodity on earth—water—to big brother. I wonder if the people of Arno even realized that power had shifted in their favor.
The first day of treatment goes well. Bubbles form on the skin of soil at the base of our twenty-five-foot hole in the ground as we first add hydrochloric acid and then peroxide. The smell of raw dirt and sweet solvent is replaced by the smell of clean air.
I’m on my way to the Dax Inn, but instead I detour through Morgan, drive up to the Morgan B&B to see for myself that it’s really closed. This time I pull around back and park in the private drive. My headlights shine on the wooden shed that had once, according to Marshall, served as a station for the Underground Railroad.
I learned most of the stories that I’ll ever know about the Morgan B&B during my first stay there with a coworker, Jeff, three years earlier. Marshall and Louis joined us for cocktails one evening on the patio.
Marshall pointed his gin and tonic at a weathered shed at the end of the driveway. “It’s too dangerous, or I’d show you guys the actual tunnel that led to the Underground Railroad hideout.”
Louis prodded Marshall. “Oh go on, don’t be such a sissy.”
They both laughed while Jeff and I sat there on an iron-backed bench, both of us feeling it was not, somehow, okay to smile.
“Sissy? Who saved you from the ghost of General Morgan?”
Louis went white. He looked at Jeff and me. “Do you two know about the general?”
After Marshall made us swear that we wouldn’t check out of the B&B immediately, he began to tell stories—the ghost in military uniform who frequented the blue bedroom, the stereo that turned off on its own whenever a song came on that either Marshall or Louis hated. The cold that never went away in the pink room, not even in August.
I’d felt that coldness and told the guys about it, along with my own story of the dressing room door, which led out of the pink room to the back staircase. How one morning as I was getting ready for work, the dressing room door—on its own—swung fully open, then closed, then open, then closed, then open. How I’d looked for an air duct or an open window, something to scientifically explain it, but found nothing. How the deliberateness of that door in the way that it opened and closed was what convinced me that I had witnessed something otherworldly. I remember feeling comforted when Marshall and Louis both nodded, and again later after Marshall and Louis had gone home, when Jeff told me that even though he was afraid to sleep in the blue room with the ghost of General Morgan, he thought that the pink room and its invisible spirit sounded even worse.
Now, I turn out my headlights and look at the Morgan B&B in darkness. It does not feel spooky. Sad. Lonely, perhaps. But not spooky. I wonder what the general is doing in the house all alone, no one for him to entertain. I wonder what Todd is doing in our dream house all alone. In my mind, Todd is as ghostly and mysterious as General Morgan—he is tissue paper thin; his face and limbs are chalk.
Todd keeps the house fastidiously clean while I’m gone and it sells very quickly, before I can finish the treatment in Arno. “I’m starting to pack,” he tells me. “You’d better come home before I stick something in a box that you don’t want me to.” A couple of years before, while I was on a business trip to Chicago, a forest fire got within a mile or so of the dream house. A fireman came up the quarter-mile-long driveway and told Todd to evacuate—take only your valuables. Todd called me that evening to tell me that it was okay; he’d grabbed all of my shoes. All of them. I screamed into the phone. “My shoes? They tell you to pack up our valuables, and you choose my shoes?” After the screaming subsided, I apologized and we laughed. The fact that in his estimation the thing I would miss most from a devastating fire would be my Teva sandals and Kenneth Cole black pumps became hysterical fodder. But when I really thought about it, afterward, I had silent questions. What, really, did he know of me? What parts of me was I not showing him?
I go back to the warranty center, this time to receive a faxed sale agreement. I get the apology out of the way. “I’m sorry for the other day, Mike.”
Mike waves a hand at me. “Forget it. I’m sorry too. People around here . . . Well, I know this place must seem pretty podunk, compared to Denver.”
“It’s not that, Mike. I just can’t stay quiet—silence is acceptance.” The fax machine rings and I point to it. “We sold the house.”
“Congratulations,” he says. “That was quick. You doing okay with that?”
I close my eyes for a second and picture conifer trees and granite boulders covered in lichen. “I think so.”
The sale agreement curls off the fax machine into a diploma-shaped roll. I love that house. Todd and I dreamt up every bit of it. I thought it was a place that we—as a we—would stay for a very long time. George Harrison’s lyrics from “Something” come to mind, his crooning over not wanting to leave.
I sign the agreement. This feels like the leaving before the actual leaving.
Melissa, a front desk clerk at Dax Inn, invites me to Girls’ Night Out at the River Boat in Arno. Turns out, Melissa and I are the only girls in our party—she’s invited no one else. Also turns out that my crew is there; no accident, since I’d mentioned that Girls’ Night Out was happening.
“Where are all the girls?” Bobby asks.
I shrug. “Sorry, Bobby.”
Melissa swivels on her barstool and checks out the crowd. “You work with some cute boys,” she says.
Melissa’s hair is streaked with highlights that I don’t remember, and in the cheap light of the River Boat, her red nails look like ten tiny flames.
I smell the peat of chewing tobacco behind me. Christopher. He’s fairly new to the crew, brought in by Bobby because he’s worked a lot with strong chemicals.
“You want to dance?” Christopher asks.
He has a squinty look about him, as if he’s hiding half his eyes on purpose, but I know that those eyes in bright sunlight are grass green. His thigh muscles push against the denim of his jeans. There is mud from the banks of the Bainbrydge caked onto his leather work boots. I point the neck of my Coors Light bottle at Melissa. “She’s dying to dance,” I say.
The look he gives me is more like a question. Melissa hops off the barstool and drags him off with a giggle.
I watch them dance and know that I couldn’t screw Christopher. Or, rather, that I won’t screw him. He pulls Melissa close, even though they’re dancing to a Sugar Ray song—“When It’s Over”—which calls for a certain amount of independent movement. I can’t help but think of Todd. When was the last time we danced together so close that it felt a little dirty? Christopher runs his hands through Melissa’s highlights, and I can almost see the sex they are about to have—all the ways they are about to do it. I know I will never have that kind of sex with Todd again. I think of Marshall and Louis, of tender conjugal visits until Louis gives up on Marshall, tires of not knowing the real truth of him. Do I know the real truth of Todd? I picture Todd—Todd and Louis. Is that it, Todd? Is that why you don’t want to have sex with me? I hear Farmer Bill in my head: That’s right, he’s one of ’em. Serves you right, Sinner. I tip my bottle up into the air and don’t stop gulping until I inhale foam.
The treatment is working. The soil at the bottom and the sides of the excavation is clean enough, so the crew begins to backfill the hole. Consultant Tip: Everyone understands the word “clean”; no need to add the word “enough.” Semitrucks haul off the treated soil. We place the last of the chemicals into groundwater-treatment wells underneath the site. The crew is—all in all—behaving well. The downward slide is easy, probably because we are two days ahead of schedule.
The crew is set to leave on Friday, and I break code and agree to have drinks with them after work at the River Boat. I buy beers for the guys to raise my cachet and get us through to a smooth end. Bobby buys me a pineapple Jell-O shot.
“Thanks, Bobby,” I say. “That was . . . interesting.”
He tugs on his American flag skullcap, scratches at something underneath. “Yeah, well, this whole thing was interesting, right?” Bobby points his Budweiser bottle like a laser pointer around the bar. “This place, boy. Real backwoods shit, huh? Feels like we are animals at the zoo, all the staring.”
Christopher and a couple other crew guys are on the dance floor with tank-top-and-short-short-clad townie girls. It’s ’80s night at the River Boat, and everyone’s dancing to “Wang Chung Tonight” and “Hungry Heart.” The crew guys dance without really moving their feet, as if their steel-toed work boots are holding them back from going all out.
“Well, you guys sure give them something to look at,” I say. “Sort of like a pack of orangutans!”
Bobby holds up his beer bottle and gives the bartender a nod.
“My tab, and make it two,” I say, and the bartender gives me the thumbs-up.
“I called my brother Gavin yesterday,” Bobby says.
“Gavin, the squisher, remember?”
I glare at Bobby. “Lookit,” I say.
Bobby laughs. “Just kidding—Jesus. I knew I could get you with that.” Bobby sucks on his beer bottle a long time. “I think Gavin almost shit himself when he heard my voice. Haven’t seen him since Dad died. He thought I was calling to tell him Mom was dead or something.”
“How’s he doing?” I ask.
“Good, good. He’s got a . . . a partner, or whatever, and they live outside Syracuse. I’m gonna go visit him after I drop off the work truck this weekend.”
“Great, Bobby.” I sip my beer and smile. “Seriously, that’s awesome.”
Bobby holds his Budweiser up for a toast. “Here’s to orangutans and alternative lifestyles.”
The clink of our bottles feels like something victorious.
It would be easy if Todd were gay. If that were it—the answer, a direct answer.
Consultant Tip: Never ask a direct question of a nonaligned source if you are not 100% certain of the answer.
I will not ask. I will never ask.
It is the weekend and the crew is gone. I have a final round of groundwater samples to take on Monday and Tuesday and then I will head home. I pack boxes of field supplies and FedEx them home to myself with notes for Todd written in Sharpie on the sides: DO NOT OPEN. I don’t want to have to repack them. And, for fun, on one of them I write: DO NOT TAKE IN EVENT OF EVACUATION!
Sunday morning I drive to the warranty center to meet Mike. I agreed to go to his church with him. It feels like a parting gift—I’ve put him in an uncomfortable position, and he works for my client. I want to make amends.
Mike picks me up in a white conversion van that he calls the Bible Bus. Three of his kids are with him; he left his wife at home with their six-month-old. Along the way we stop and pick up about nine kids—no adults. Maybe instead of saving my soul, Mike is more interested in my babysitting skill set.
The church is pretty packed; Mike takes half of the kids and slides into a pew. I take the other half and we sit right in front of him. The minister, a spindle of a man with a narrow face and slight stutter, begins the service. The first hour is Bible study. I police the Bible Bus kids—yank fingers out of noses and make shushing sounds. Bible study is painful. The second hour gets more interesting. People stand up in their pews and tell stories of other people who need our prayers: Carl Vincent, whose farm got strangled by floodwaters released by the dam (Pray for him, Almighty God. Chorus: Amen). Missy Porter, whose emphysema has grabbed her lungs and brought her one step closer to our Lord (Pray for her, Almighty God. Chorus: Amen). During a litany of diseases—from cancer down to a plain old flu bug—my mind wanders. George Harrison. What about George? He just died and, from what I read about him in the paper, he was a big God guy. “Everything else can wait, but the search for God cannot wait,” he’d said, quoting Paramahansa Yogananda, and “Love one another.” These are great messages. I stand up in my pew.
“I would like to say a prayer for George Harrison, from the Beatles,” I say. “By all accounts, he loved God and wanted us all to love one another. May he rest in peace. Pray for him, Almighty God.”
The congregation is silent. No chorus of amens.
I feel Mike’s hand on my shoulder. He leans over and whispers, “We don’t pray for the dead.”
“What?” I realize I’m still standing and the church is still silent. I’m keenly aware of the stares. I think of Bobby and his zoo comment. I am the orangutan. I sit down.
Mike tries to explain my blunder on the ride home. “Our souls are already committed, one way or another, when we die.”
“I’ve been praying for the dead all my life, Mike,” I say.
The little girl next to me decapitates a Dollar Store Barbie.
“It’s pointless,” Mike says. “When you die, you die. What’s done is done.”
I sigh. “That’s horrible.” I’ve always pictured a giant straw leading from earth to heaven, a pipeline of prayers that eventually spring the trapped souls from purgatory to paradise. Sins forgiven. A chance for souls to break out and be free. I wave good-bye to the Bible Bus kids, one by one, as they run with their frayed pant legs and over-bleached Sunday dresses, slamming screen doors on their way inside dark houses.
My work is done, and I will leave Arno tomorrow. It’s my last night in town, so I treat myself to pizza at Olive’s. I sit alone in a booth. People glance at me; a few of them whisper. Orangutan. It does not bother me tonight.
I drive to the Morgan B&B. I zip up my jacket and get out of the PT Cruiser. The sky is cloudless, and the temperature and humidity make the night feel cruel. I sit on the curb and stare at the house. It’s a formidable presence—thick front columns; tall, arched windows. It’s different from most of this village’s homes, much more stately. There are none as remotely beautiful in all of Arno. Marshall and Louis seemed to have understood the importance of restoring its majesty. General Morgan’s house was their dream house. They gave this village a treasure, and this village gave them . . . what?
I wonder what the general thinks. Does he judge them? Does he think that they are two insert-derogatory-word-from-the-1800s-here who invaded his home? In my heart, I don’t think so. Why else would the general turn off the music if Marshall or Louis hated a song? That was very kind of him. And to house an Underground Railroad station? That was admirable. He knew how to do the right thing, even if it could have cost him his life.
I look up at the window of the blue room, where Marshall said the general had manifested multiple times. Of course, the window is dark. Why can’t you leave your home, General Morgan? What is still here for you?
I whisper good-bye.
To hell with the Bible church—I pray the entire drive back to the Dax Inn. I pray for the general’s soul. George Harrison’s, too. I pray for Bobby and his brother Gavin; I pray for Mike and the Bible Bus kids, for the stuttering minister who didn’t even try to bail me out of awkwardness. I pray for Marshall and Louis. I even pray—knowing that cursing at someone while praying for him is probably a sin—for Farmer Bill. And I pray for myself, too. Ipray that what I am about to do is the right thing after all, for everyone. I pray that I can wordsmith a pillow that will make Todd okay. I pray for an easy downhill slide.
The names of several people, including General Robert Morgan, and places in this essay have been changed.
Michele Finn Johnson's work has appeared in Mid-American Review, Puerto del Sol, Necessary Fiction, SmokeLong Quarterly, Flyway: Journal of Writing & Environment, and elsewhere. Her work previously won an AWP Intro Journals Project award. Michele lives in Tucson with her husband, Karl, and is working on a creative nonfiction collection. www.michelefinnjohnson.com