D.R. Chisholm

Short Stories

                                                                           THE LAYOVER

By D. R. Chisholm

 

Leonard

     “I wish there were a way to get out of this,” I said to my wife Carolyn as she came out of the bathroom on a cloud of powder and hairspray.

     Shaking her head (silly, silly man), she wafted over to kiss me on the cheek as I stood before my reflection in the mirror over our bureau, wrestling with my tie.

Carolyn had her women’s prayer meeting and couldn’t beg off, and Ruth had asked me to go with her – and trying to say no to Ruth was like trying to saw through a cord of firewood with a butter knife; you might get through it, but the effort was far to great to bother with the attempt.

     “Ruth feels safe with you,” said Carolyn, her neck muscle flexing as she turned her head to put on a pearl earring. “She can’t drive anymore – especially not at night. But even if she could she’d want you there for moral support.”

     I sighed and pulled my wife into an embrace and kissed her on the lips, tasting the cloying-sweet mouthwash on her breath. Stepping back to see Carolyn’s dimpled, thin-lipped smile, I surrendered to the inevitable.

    Despite a sometimes acerbic tongue, Ruth was a hero to our church, having taken the Word of God to Africa for over twenty years under threat of war, famine and even after contracting malaria. Now she was tasked with what might be her last chance to bring her daughter to Christ. I assumed she wanted me there for spiritual support, or maybe just to be a witness to her effort. I guessed there was deep and muddy water in the gulf between them that would be difficult to navigate. To my shame, I didn’t want to see what might be dredged up from the muck over dinner.

     “Are you ready, Leonard?” Ruth asked from her perch on the couch as I emerged from the hallway into the living room.

     I gave her my best pastor smile (everything is good and all manner of things are good) and went to help her up. She grabbed on to my proffered arm with strength that belied her age and pulled herself up, all the while mirroring my puffy-cheeked, shining-eyed smile back at me.

 

JACQUELINE

     The airplane lurched and shuddered as its wheels touched down on the tarmac. The cabin was as quiet as a Presbyterian altar call, but when the going smoothed I heard the collective exhalation of two hundred and sixty people who had been holding their breath.

     “You live in Portland?” asked the rabbit-faced woman in the seat beside me as we taxied to the terminal.

     “Honolulu,” I said, the pressure in my ears from the change in altitude making my voice sound hollow to my own ears.

    I’d spent three of the last six hours in flight listening to a recap of Rabbit Face’s Hawaiian getaway adventure with a litter of galpals who would be flying home the following day – and boy how she wished she could have stayed, but her oaf of a husband blah, blah, blah.

    After the plane docked with the terminal and the airline attendants bid us all a rote fond adieu, I was not surprised to discover my legs felt as if they were encased in wet cement as I forced them to carry me up the accordion walkway into a largely deserted lobby. My mouth went dry as I stepped on the silver slatted steps of the wide escalator and began a slow descent into the baggage claim area. I had no luggage to pick up, since I was only in Portland on a four-hour layover, but it was the sole exit and where I knew Mother would be waiting for me.

    She stood to the right of a pair of sliding glass doors, behind which the glow of fluorescent lights framed her in a corona. How apt, I thought.

    I knew she would be changed and expected the cloud of gray hair and stooped posture, but I would never have recognized her in passing had I not seen her eyes. Even at a distance and obscured by thick eyeglass lenses in clunky, clear plastic frames, the sight of those eyes made my heart lurch in my chest; not out of excitement at our impending reunion, but out of an autonomic fear.

    I made myself smile because I knew she’d seen me and she knew I’d seen her, but I would have been happy with a Sisyphus-type bargain: So long as each time I reached the bottom of the escalator I was forced to the top again, I would never have to step off at the bottom and meet her. I thought I could live with that.

    I looked down as my nude, patent-leather Christian Louboutin slingback touched the carpet on an ankle as shuddery as the airplane landing gear upon touchdown was and took a steadying breath.

    Mother’s smile, her familiar wide-toothed dentures gleaming white in the florescent light, precipitated my own. I didn’t feel it, but forty-five years of social conditioning can’t be resisted without effort. That was all right. It would be over soon enough. I was not a vulnerable kid anymore and I could make nice.

    Her arms came up to embrace me as I neared and I gave her a gentle squeeze in return, stepping away the moment she released me.

    A man I hadn’t noticed sidled up next to mother and tottered back and forth on the heels of his Florsheims, awaiting an introduction. The idea this man might be Mother’s beau tickled me and I had to stifle a giggle.

    “This is Reverend Calhoun,” said Mother in a wavering alto.

    “Good to meet you,” said the Reverend, bending at the waist and offering me his right hand. “I hope you don’t mind,” he said, looking from Mother to me and back to Mother again. “Carolyn, that’s my wife, she wouldn’t hear of your mother making the trip into Portland without an escort.”

     Ah – too bad for Mother; Reverend Calhoun clearly worshipped her, and I was sure she loved him for it - but she was a winter and he an autumn. I figured his marriage might survive, though I wouldn’t have put good money on it.

    “I don’t drive so well at night,” Mother was saying.

    “Of course,” I said.

    Reverend Calhoun clapped his hands together a little too loudly and smiled at me as if I’d said something brilliant. He appeared to be in his late fifties, with a full head of graying hair cut close to the scalp. He had an owlish face that gave him a bookish look I found pleasing.

    “We should be going,” he said with a sweep of his arm to the sliding glass doors. “The car’s just by the curb.”

    Mother took Reverend Calhoun’s right arm and I followed the two of them out to find an airport security guard waiting by a cream-colored old Volvo that sat idling by the curb.

    “God bless you,” said Mother, patting the young black man’s cheek as she passed.

    “My pleasure, Ma’am,” said the man, a bashful smile on his face.

    Reverend Calhoun opened the passenger-side door for Mother, then the back door for me before circling around the front to get into the driver’s seat. I had a flashback as I settled back with my purse on my lap: Sunday mornings over thirty years past… Mother and her second husband, also a pastor, and his son from his first marriage huddled together on the front bench seat of our second-hand Caddy and me in the back, alone. They - laughing and talking like good friends. Me - looking out the window at the trees and houses passing by.

    “Where to?” asked Reverend Calhoun.

    Mother turned to look back at me. “Where would you like to have dinner, honey?”

    I smiled like a bobble-headed beauty queen listening to a pageant host’s interview question. “Anywhere,” I said.

    What I didn’t say was that I hadn’t been in Portland for a helluva long time and had no idea what our choices might be, so why the fuck are you asking me?

    “There’s a Stuart Anderson’s not far,” said the Reverend.

    Mother hooked a glance back to me and I nodded. “Good. That’ll do just fine,” she said.

 

RUTH

     After Jacqueline excused herself and went to the ladies’ room, I asked Leonard what he thought of my daughter.

     “She’s stunning,” he said. “You can always tell successful people by how they carry themselves. When she came off the escalator to come meet you on those high heels, she looked like she could be some big celebrity. Was she a beautiful child?”

     “Oh, no. She was always sort of drab and skittish, though I imagine my first husband had a lot to do with that.”

     Leonard seemed taken aback and about to ask a question when Jacqueline returned and the waitress came to take our drink orders and explain the specials.

     After the waitress left, the ensuing silence became a tad awkward. I expected it would be difficult at first and had hoped Leonard might be useful in that regard, since he rarely quit talking long enough to get a word in edgewise. But he was gawking at Jacqueline like a love-struck puppy dog while I, for the life of me, couldn’t think of a thing to say.

    At eighty-one and with my high blood pressure, I knew the Lord would come to call me home sooner, rather than later. I have brought hundreds of sinners to Christ, but even before I left for the mission field, my daughter had turned from her upbringing and has since stubbornly refused Him. This would doubtless be my last chance to save her soul and make up for everything, but I couldn’t find the words to start.

     “Your mother tells me you are a novelist,” said Leonard, finally.

    I couldn’t help but pass him a grateful smile.                        

     “Yes,” said Jacqueline. “I got started late, but it’s been wonderful. My husband, Aaron, he’s been so supportive - without him I’d still be working in some dreary office dreaming of retirement. I don’t ever want to retire from writing.”

     Leonard looked to me to get involved in the conversation, but my throat felt like I’d swallowed a rock. Before I could reach for the water glass to take a drink, Jacqueline asked me how I liked being home again and whether I was settled back into a routine.

    “It’s good to be home with my church family,” I began. “But I miss the people of Mozambique and the brothers and sisters of the mission house. It’s a beautiful country, Mozambique - in its way. Nothing like Oregon, of course. Mozambique is stark, but I’ll never forget the sunsets.”

    “Did you have a lot of friends among the locals?” Jacqueline asked.

    To my surprise, I felt tears spring to my eyes. Since returning seven year’s before, I must have given a hundred talks on my life as a missionary in Mozambique, but never once had I felt like crying. All of a sudden, I could see the faces of the villagers around the mission that I’d known, recalling so many that we lost to AIDS and pointless violence.

    “They are a wonderful people,” I said, blinking back the tears. “Simple and superstitious, but generous. They were always quick to take Jesus into their hearts, but they were like children in their faith – they almost never grew to understand they had to obey the Word of God to remain saved.”

    One thing I’d never shared in my many talks – not even with Carolyn or Leonard – was the essential failure of my years of missionary work: Precious few of the people I ministered to ever remained on the path to salvation. They would say the sinner’s prayer, but then go and have sexual intercourse with multiple partners or steal. Some of the men went off to commit acts so heinous I had nightmares about it. I’d never admitted how futile those twenty-three years of my life sometimes felt. If it weren’t for the rare soul who found solid footing on the road to Heaven, I don’t know that I could have lived with the disappointment.

    Our drinks and salads came and I looked up to find Jacqueline staring down at her lap. She seemed upset. I couldn’t think what I might have said. I knew she was an unbeliever, but she’d been raised in the church – surely I wasn’t offending her sensibilities by talking about my work.

    “Is your salad all right?” I asked.

    Her head jerked up as if I’d startled her. She smiled quick enough, but it looked forced. 
    "Yes! Very good,” she said, smiling like a lunatic.

    “You must be very proud of your mother,” said Leonard.

    I gave him a weak swat on the forearm, but I had to admit I was interested to hear Jacqueline’s response. She stuffed a wad of salad into her mouth and nodded.

    “Mmmm,” was the sound she made.

    “Your mother braved war, famine – even malaria to take the Word of God to Africa. She’s a hero to us all,” said Leonard.

    I knew he was trying to help, but I started feeling a tad embarrassed. Of course Jacqueline had to be proud of what I’d done. He didn’t have to keep on about it. Still, it would have been nice to hear my daughter tell me how she felt. I think I had a right to hear a few words on the subject.

When Jacqueline intentionally stuffed more salad into her mouth, I might have grown a tad frustrated.

    “Is there something you don’t want to say, Jacqueline?” I asked in a voice that came out harsher than I’d intended.

    A fierce blush flowered on her pale cheeks. It was a reaction to stress I remember very well from her childhood. How her face used to turn beet-purple when somebody looked at her funny. She had no control over herself. When she was little, it was so bad that whenever I spanked her she would pee down her bare legs. At first I thought it was a ploy to get me to let up with the switch or what have you, but then realized she honestly couldn’t help it. She was like a frightened dog walking around every day with her haunches an inch off the ground. But she was an adult now, however, and I could not abide her putting me off. 
    “Well, if you’ve something to say,” I pressed.

    “Ruth…” said Leonard, his hand raised to stay me.

    “No. I’d like to know what my daughter thinks about the twenty-three years I spent risking my life to bring those people to Christ.”

    Jacqueline actually rolled her eyes and I felt an old anger well up inside. I don’t know where it came from, but it was hard to put away. All I could do was stare at my daughter.

    “I’d really rather not say anything. I mean, I do think it took a lot of courage for you to give up all the comfort and safety of life here,” she said.

    “And?” I said.

    “Please – let’s just have a nice conversation. I don’t want to say something that might upset anyone,” she said.

    “Jacqueline is right,” said Leonard. “Let’s just…”

    I turned to the Reverend; my friend and pastor looked at me and saw something in my expression that made him wither back in his chair. I admit I didn’t feel sorry. Jacqueline clearly wanted to voice her distain for the Lord’s work and he needed to hear it to understand why she, of all people, had rebelled against Christ. He needed to know that it wasn’t my fault.

    “I appreciate your help, Leonard,” I said as mildly as a supplicant. “But, I really, truly want to hear Jacqueline’s honest opinion.”

    Across the table, I heard my daughter sigh and set down her fork on her plate.

    “My values are different from yours, that’s all. I don’t look at the world the way you do. Let’s just leave it at that,” she said.

    She had that arrogant little smile I always assumed she inherited from one of her birth parents, but I didn’t let it upset me. But, when I gave my hand a twirl to say go on, I noticed the palsy acting up and quickly hid my hand under the table. Just then, the waitress returned to take our salad plates and re-fill our drinks. We three remained silent until she left. I could see Leonard fidgeting out of the corner of my eye and had to keep from giving him a poke with my elbow. I can not recall the last time my dander was so riled. I muttered a prayer for calm, but a sort of indignation had me swept up and I couldn’t seem to let it go. Jacqueline’s embarrassed, sweet-as-honey protests were doubtless for Leonard’s benefit. I wish she’d just get on with whatever it was she obviously meant to say.

    Jacqueline looked to me, to Leonard, and back to me – a thin, miserable smile on her lips. “You want my opinion?”

    I nodded, not trusting myself to speak.

    “Okay… Do you remember you wrote to me about Planned Parenthood’s visit to Mozambique?”

    I sat back in my chair, flummoxed. “What are you talking about? They came to give out condoms and teach sex in the villages and we asked them to leave. Are you referring to that?”

    “You forced them out and destroyed all the condoms they left behind,” she said, like an accusation.

    “Well, yes,” I said, realizing what she was getting at. “The only way to ensure the people didn’t contract HIV or any other diseases was to be abstinent or monogamous. Condoms can slip off. Besides, if they were to follow the path to salvation, they needed to learn to obey God’s law – and one of those laws is that sex is restricted to a husband and a wife.”

    Jacqueline’s color came up again and she leaned forward in her chair and stared at me. “You said yourself the people weren’t committed to Christianity. They said yes and then went back to doing what they’d always done. All you did by sending the Planned Parenthood people away and burning the condoms was seal the deaths of who-knows how many people.”

    “Hold on now,” said Leonard, leaning forward and knocking his iced tea over.

    Jacqueline sat back in her chair and looked at him. “She went into a culture she knew almost nothing about, except for what she was taught by white teachers and other missionaries, and then had the arrogance to move there and tell the people they would go to hell unless they abandoned their age-old beliefs and did what the bible said they ought to,” she said before turning her slitted eyes back to me. “Despite what you believe, there are many ways to God or enlightenment or whatever people are searching for. You judged them. Not God; you. Then you condemned them to death for not believing what you do. Am I proud of you? No. I can’t say that I am.”

    My heart was pounding and my face felt as if it were on fire. Black spots began to dance along the periphery of my vision and I worried I might faint. I felt Leonard’s hand on my shoulder. He was holding up my tea glass and telling me to drink. I saw my trembling hand reach up for the glass, then everything went dark.

 

JACQUELINE

     Once upon a time I would have been terrified to say boo to my erstwhile mother. But after being badgered into saying my piece, I felt emancipated. I felt damn good. It should not be construed that I wanted to hurt her feelings, though. Despite her virulent effect on my early life, I was now a grown woman. I didn’t have the urge to even things up. Honestly, I’d only agreed to meet with her because my cousin, Mandy, had spilled to her that I had a layover in Portland and I couldn’t find a reasonable excuse when she called me to setup this dinner. I just wanted to get back to my life, but Mother seemed intent on pursuing her agenda – which was not a final gambit to save my immortal soul, no matter what she’d told herself or the Reverend Calhoun. Whatever it was she really wanted to accomplish was probably as much a mystery to her as it was to me. I’d never met another person so steeped in denial as my adoptive mother.

     “She’s fainted,” said the Reverend, motioning the waitress over.

     “Your food should be out any minute… Oh! Let me call over the bus boy to clean that up,” she said, referring to the spilt tea.

     “Ruth,” the Reverend said in a stage-whisper.

     Mother looked up and batted him away. “I’m fine. Just praying,” she said.

     The promised bus boy gave a fresh glass of iced tea to Reverend Calhoun and set about cleaning up the mess. Following the bus boy's departure, the waitress showed up with our dinners.

     “Can I get you anything else?” she asked. 

     “We’re fine,” Mother snapped.

     I noticed Reverend Calhoun looking at Mother over the top of his eyeglasses. I had a feeling he was seeing a side her he was less than familiar with.

     Mother cut off a chunk of chicken and forked it into her mouth, chewing furiously and looking everywhere but at me. I picked at my baked potato and wilting broccoli. Reverend Calhoun was doing likewise and I imagined he wished he were having some of his more useful teeth pulled out with rusty pliers right about then.

     To make peace, I decided to be the bigger man. “I’m sorry to hurt your feelings, Mother. If you hadn’t been so insistent, I wouldn’t have said anything, but I couldn’t lie and pretend I feel differently.”

     Mother let her silverware clatter to her plate. She turned in her chair to look at Reverend Calhoun.

     “Do you know Timothy and I had to perform an exorcism on Jacqueline when she was twelve? She was so demon-infested that it took six hours for the devil to come out and agree to release her.”

     The expression on Mother’s face when she turned back to look at me was one of triumph. It was all I could do not to laugh. However, when I thought about it for a moment, it wasn’t all that funny. When I glanced up at the Reverend, he was looking at me as if I were a kitten just ground into paté by a judicious application of Goodyear tires on a lonely stretch of highway.

     When I glanced back at Mother, her eyes were wide and bulging behind her thick glasses. Something about the challenge I saw in them made me wonder if she’d brought the good and kindly Reverend out of fear that I’d be inclined to return one of her long-ago favors with the sole of one of my exquisite pumps. I was suddenly sure he was there, in part, to keep my temper in check. Mother assumed I would not dare abuse her with a witness. She couldn’t conceive that I was not interested in a reckoning.

     Still, there was an issue on the table. I did not consider that speaking for the eleven year-old child who had suffered the mental and physical trauma of that long-ago exorcism could be anything but just.

     I took a long, leisurely drink of iced tea while I gathered my thoughts. “I pretended to admit I was the demon so you and Tim would leave me alone. There are no such things as demons, Mother,” I said. “Frankly, it’s child abuse to try and convince a kid she’s possessed by the devil. I’m not evil and I never was. The sad truth is that I’m not the child you wanted and no amount of beating or humiliation could ever change that.”

     I felt sorry for Reverend Calhoun. Hell, I felt sorry for myself. I even felt a little sorry for Mother. She’d been a terrible parent, but she’d also had an awful life – at least until she got her independence when she went into the missions. That I neither believed what she’d done was worthwhile nor gave her the awe she felt owed had to unwind her top.

     “Fine. Then tell Reverend Calhoun how you got sent into foster care when you were sixteen because your father and his wife couldn’t handle you,” she said, eyes red and tearing.

     “I was taken into protective custody, Mother. Remember your first husband? The one you didn’t protect me from? The State was left to do the job. Do you honestly just make up your own version of the truth so you can sleep at night?”

     Tears began to course down Mother’s cheeks, glistening like diamond flakes in the candlelight. I was surprised Reverend Calhoun didn’t make some felicitous gesture.

     “This has to stop,” he said, speaking to Mother. “Remember you came here to witness to Jacqueline. This is,” he looked at the table as if it were piled high with dog shit and sighed. “This is no good.”

     Mother sobbed into a handkerchief while Reverend Calhoun and I sipped at our tea.

 

LEONARD

     It was obvious we’d finished all of the food any of us was likely to eat. I put down my fork and pushed my plate away.

     Ruth dried her eyes and sat stiff-necked beside me, her hands quivering in her lap. I wondered at her fury - how a mother, even an adoptive one like her, could harbor such hate for her own child. There was love, too. She’d been heartsick over their estrangement. But I thought I understood the truism that there are two sides to every story much better now. I’d thought the daughter had to be the worst kind of woman to abandon her mother in her elderhood.

     Still, I felt sorry for Ruth. She had come to meet Jacqueline with the most vital of agendas. I still looked up to her for all she had done, for the sacrifices she’d made. Perhaps, I thought, I could repay her some by taking up her standard.

    “Jacqueline, would it offend you if I talked to you about Jesus for a little bit?” I said in as gentle a tone as I could manage.

     “I’d rather we didn’t, but if you feel compelled, I won’t storm out,” said Jacqueline.

     I tried to forget about Ruth and just focus on her daughter. Neither of us wanted to do this, but we were going to forge ahead, anyway. Jacqueline probably knew the bible nearly as well as I, so I abandoned the idea of instruction and went into the heart of things.

     “I suppose the central question is whether you believe Jesus died for your sins,” I said.

     Jacqueline spared a glance to Ruth, whose eyes were now trained on her daughter. When she looked back to me, she looked so sad I thought I might cry.

     “I wish I could, Reverend. I really do. It would be such a comfort to believe that heaven exists and people like Hitler are roasting in hell as we speak, but I do not believe.”

     “May I ask why not?” I ventured. I’d heard many protests in my years as a pastor, but I was curious what Jacqueline had to say. Perhaps, if I understood better why she refused to believe, I could plant a seed that might bear fruit later.

     The waitress came up to the table then, a nervous smile replacing the ingratiating one she’d begun with when we first arrived.  “Would you folks like any coffee or dessert?”

     Jacqueline nodded. “Coffee.”

     “Two,” said I.

     Ruth just shook her head, not bothering to look up at the girl.

     Jacqueline drank the remains of her iced tea, studying me over the rim of the glass before she put it down.

     “The scrolls selected to make up the bible are collections of men’s writings, assembled and edited by a misogynistic political body with a social agenda,” she began. “Still, if God actually used each author as His version of a pen and every word is His – and if He was able to overwhelm the free will of those men who put the old and new testaments together to keep them from omitting, including or changing the originals, then I have to tell you Reverend that I still wouldn’t want to jump on the Christian band wagon.”

     “Why?” I asked.

     “Because the God I’ve read about in the bible, and you can believe I’ve read every word, is…” Jacqueline glanced over at her mother again, as did I. She was watching her daughter carefully.

     “Here we are,” said the waitress, who set down our coffee. “Cream?”

     “Please,” I said.

     Jacqueline shook her head. “Thank you.”

     When we were alone in our darkened cubicle again, Jacqueline gave me an apologetic smile. “Before I finish my thought, I want to state the obvious: This is my opinion. I don’t mean to say that your beliefs are wrong. Just because I think you are wrong doesn’t mean I’m right.”

     I fixed my coffee up and took a scalding sip, set the cup down in its saucer and nodded. “I understand.”

     Ruth, however, harrumphed; a sound deep in her throat. Jacqueline ignored it, and so did I.

     “The God of the bible is a sonofabitch,” said Jacqueline. “Jealous, angry, spiteful and mean. Are you willing to hear the rest?”

     “No,” said Ruth, startling us both. “I will not sit here and listen to you blaspheme.”

     I must have been gawking at Ruth because she told me to re-hinge my jaw.

     “I can see this was a waste of time. Leonard, let’s take her back to the airport and then I want to go home. I don’t know why I bothered worrying about Jacqueline when it’s obvious she has everything worked out and I’m the fool for dedicating my life to God,” Ruth said, standing with her small, black purse clutched to her chest. “I’ll be waiting out front.”

     She surely expected me to get up and follow her out, but the thought didn’t occur to me. I looked at Jacqueline, whose expression was passive.

     “I don’t…” I began.

     Jacqueline, sipping her coffee, lifted a pinky to stop me.

     “A lot of believers are like her, Reverend,” she said. “She’ll pretend to respect people who don’t believe until they say something she doesn’t like. She cannot be challenged. If she were to consider she was wrong, even for a moment, I don’t think she could live with herself anymore.”

     It’s true I’ve had to work to maintain my faith over the years. Many pastors and priests might try and convince people otherwise, but I’d guess every one of us must stoke the flames of faith now and again. If we don’t allow for the reasonability of doubt, then we aren’t being honest. I understood something about Ruth, then, and the knowledge sat like a stone in my stomach: Ruth didn’t have to work to maintain her faith. She believed, utterly. I’d always suspected this and admired her for it. This fact had been the very thing that made her a hero to me, but I suddenly realized how mindless her brand of faith could be and it frightened me.

     “I’m sorry she left,” I said to Jacqueline, embarrassed for her mother’s behavior.

     “Don’t be,” said Jacqueline. “She dumped me off on my father when I was thirteen and went to Africa when I was twenty-one. She was never much of a mother to me and I stopped caring for her any more than I would an acquaintance long ago. That might make me seem callous, Reverend, but I believe my attitude is generous.”

     I had a moment of clarity as I wondered whether giving up the battle for Jacqueline’s soul after Ruth’s abandoning the fight would amount to me failing her just as her mother had – and then I saw that it was never my fight; never my business. It had never been any of Ruth’s business, either. Jacqueline deserved her unbelief. She deserved to have her lack of faith respected just as I deserve to have my faith honored.

     We drank our coffee in silence together for a minute, and then I said: “I’d better go see how she’s doing. Will you be ready to go soon?”

     Jacqueline’s expression was relaxed; good-humored. “I think I’ll just call a taxi. You go ahead and take her home. She’s tired.”

     “What about the bill?” I asked, reaching down to rummage in my pocket for my billfold.

     She reached a hand across the table toward me. “I already paid. I arranged for it when I went to the ladies’ room. It’s… my pleasure,” she said with a little laugh.

     I had to go tend to Ruth, but I felt horrible leaving Jacqueline alone at the table. How must she feel, I wondered.

     As if she read my mind, Jacqueline said: “Don’t worry about me. Go on and see about her.”

     I pushed back my chair and stood up, feeling cowardly somehow. More than anything I just wanted to get home to Carolyn and hold her in my arms and thank God for giving me a wife with a gentle spirit.

     As I turned to go, Jacqueline rose and stepped around the table to meet me. She pulled me into a warm embrace. “Thank you for taking care of her. She needs to be admired and that is something I could never, ever do,” she whispered.

     As I let her go my heart broke a little, but I turned away to navigate the maze of the darkly-lit restaurant. When I came to the hall leading to the front doors, I saw Ruth sitting on a long bench by the wall. Her head with its thinning halo of gray hair nodded to her chest and I saw that she was sleeping peacefully.

                                                                            THE END

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