Janet Lee Nye
Sometimes in the evening, Father Ken would sit on the porch and watch the neighborhood come to life. Twenty-five years ago, the rhythms had been different. By day the street had hummed with traffic and shoppers and the residents who rose with the sun turned in early making for quiet nights. Now, the streets were quiet most of the day, except for the early morning chatter of children, jumping over jagged broken slabs and knee high weeds, on their way to school. Once the sun began to dip down behind the chapel and throw shadows across the barred windows of the buildings across the street, the neighborhood began to stir.
It began with a slow accumulation of young men on front porch steps. Not unlike Father Ken, although the young men held their bottles of beer proudly, tossing them out on the weedy lawns to glint in the sunlight, while the Father hid his empties back in his little room. Soon, the thumping bass of rap music would begin, sometimes so loud that he could feel the vibration through the brick beneath him. Occasionally, he feared for the two hundred year old stained glass in the windows. But the glass had faced far worse than gangster rap and survived. Once it was full dark and the young men began gathering in small groups on the corners, Father Ken would go back inside the chapel. Later in the night, there might be gunfire and blue lights flashing, perhaps screams and the red lights of the ambulance.
When he’d been assigned here so many years ago, the small chapel, for that was all it really was, still had a small but loyal congregation. The shootings and drug deals were still blocks away, safely ignored as long as you knew where not to go once the sun went down. But the congregation had been elderly. They died off or moved to nursing homes. The poverty and crime crept closer and closer like a malignant tumor killing all in its path. There were no new converts to minister. The Church felt it correct to leave him here, a shepherd without sheep, watching over an empty pasture.
The chapel was an anomaly along the buffer zone between the haves and have-nots. As in all cities, large and small, there was a constant shifting as neighborhoods decayed, then were restored and began the cycle again. Most of the buildings surrounding the chapel had been abandoned in the last year as merchants and home owners sought safer ground. Two blocks in one direction were multi-million dollar homes. Two blocks in the other were crack houses, complete with guns and whores and hard eyed children who knew all too well what their future held.
Don’t had been one of those children. On the night Father Ken met him, about six years ago, he had completely embraced what the world expected of him: crime, drugs and guns. Awakened by the sound of breaking glass, Father Ken had found Don’t in the tiny kitchen, baggy pants about to drop off his bony hips, a gun clutched unconvincingly in one hand. (Don’t was his street name, the boy had explained later, short for “don’t mess with”.)
“I need that what you call it, sanctum,” the boy demanded.
“Yeah, that’s it.”
Father didn’t say anything, but lifted a hand, gesturing towards the chapel. Don’t disappeared into the dark room. Father Ken then let the police who appeared at his back door, drawn by the broken window, into the kitchen and allowed them to search the chapel.
They didn’t find the boy. After the police had left, Don’t confronted the priest. “Why you do that?”
Father Ken shrugged. “It’s God’s house. It was His decision if He wanted to shelter you tonight.”
Don’t peered out the back door, shaking his head. He turned and grinned. “You’re crazy, man.”
That was the last time Father Ken had spoken to the boy, but from that day, there was no more graffiti on the chapel walls. The garbage cans were no longer turned over. And there had never been a problem with the wedding guests after that either.
Ah, the wedding guests. Father Ken took a deep breath and let it out slowly, sorry he’d remembered, wishing for a few more minutes of peace. But there was work to do. He drew himself up, needing to use the iron banister to gain his footing, feeling stiff from just a few minutes sitting on the brick. Inside, he could hear the swish of Nora’s mop. She would need help in polishing the pews. The arthritis in her hands and wrists was getting worse although she’d never admit to it.
When he entered the chapel, the smell of Murphy’s Oil Soap was overwhelming. He thought it stunk, but Nora would use nothing else. She was a gray figure, gray hair, pallid face, her black dress faded to gray and unlaced graying sneakers squeaking on the oak planks of the floor. Her back was to him and she worked with a grim determination, the mop in her hands moving in a precise pattern.
The interior of the chapel was simple. The floors were wide oak planks, mellowed to a dark gold by two hundred years of shuffling footsteps. The walls were exposed brick the color of dried blood. Two foot wide oak beams formed the frame around which the bricks had been set. The ceiling was an elaborate dome of carved wood. Father Ken had once found Nora balanced on the top rung of a ladder, feather duster in hand, dusting the lengths of wood.
The altar was a raised dais at the front, a simple pulpit from which he once held mass. There was no real lighting. Some floodlights had been placed, mostly out of sight, in the ceiling at some time during the seventies, but he rarely used them, preferring the light of the stained glass windows. Along both side walls were candle sconces. Sometimes, he would light candles and sit on the edge of the dais, watching the flicker of light and shadow.
Nora sensed his presence and turned around. “Woman must be crazy,” she said, plunging the mop into the bucket beside her. “Three in a day and the last one near dark? In this neighborhood? They’ll all be mugged. That’ll be just wonderful for business. Not that it’s any of my affair, mind you now. All I’m saying is it’s getting too much.”
He walked down the side aisle and found the pew where she’d placed some rags and polish. He took one and doused it with polish, moved to the next pew and sat down, scooting along the seat as he polished.
“It is a lot of work,” he said.
Nora resumed her mopping. “Work ain’t nothing. It’s the expectation.”
“Uh-huh. That expectation that everything she asks for will be done, just because she asks. That expectation that the needs of others will always come second to her wants.”
Father Ken thought as he polished. He’d found that he liked to polish the wood, sweep and mop the floors. Nora attacked the chores as if they were something to be endured for some future reward. The Father found he liked the slow, simple monotony of it. He liked the way his mind could settle itself, his thoughts nothing more than a dull buzz.
She was right in a way. Camilla DeHousen was one of those people who were different, just because she thought she was. She had an old family name and the poor, those without a name in the history books, were there for her bidding. And she never gave it a second thought because that was the way it was meant to be in her version of the world.
When Camilla’s fifth and last daughter had been properly married off, instead of settling back and awaiting the arrival of the next generation, she’d found herself divorced. Divorced and virtually penniless, her husband’s new bride on his arm at all the important social events in town. So, she’d turned to what she was good at: planning weddings. She specialized in arranging what she called destination weddings, where the bride, groom and entire wedding party traveled to town just to get married. And the chapel was one of her favorite spots to recommend for the actual ceremony, for its charm, she said.
Most likely for its cheapness, Father Ken thought. But the money he sent dutifully to the diocese, minus his carefully documented (and occasionally doctored) expenses, was probably one of the reasons he was allowed to stay on, running an empty church, performing non-denominational services mostly.
Three weddings in a single day was quite a stretch, but Nora’s complaining was just that, complaining. Camilla had a crew of young men who swooped in to set up flowers and bunting, even a pink carpet once. They then retired to the small garden out back where they smoked cigarettes until it was time to take everything down and set up for the next wedding.
Nora’s main complaint was the rice. Since it was forbidden to throw rice at the bride and groom outdoors for the harm it caused to birds, Father Ken allowed it to be tossed as the bride and groom made their way up the aisle. The young men swept, but Nora would bring the evidence of their shoddy work balanced in the scoop of her dustpan, heaps of rice swept from every corner of the chapel.
“It’s supposed to be gently tossed,” she’d sniff, “not flung like they was trying to put an eye out.”
After Nora decided that the cleaning had been sufficiently completed, she retired to the small room, it had been the pantry, where she’d lived for the past four years. Father Ken lingered in the chapel, watching the last of the light filter through the windows, then got up and lit the candles in the sconces. The faint scent of vanilla began to slowly overpower the smell of Murphy’s. He sat on the edge of the altar and stared out at the empty rows of pews, wondering what he would say if he had to perform a real service.
There was an emptiness within him that the comforting rituals of the church used to fill. It wasn’t unpleasant, just a puzzle. He didn’t think he’d lost his faith, perhaps just misplaced it, and wondered if it would turn up again someday.
A quiet shuffle caught his attention. Nora stood in the doorway, clutching her robe tight around her throat. She wouldn’t step over the threshold in her bed clothes, not into the church.
“You need to be getting some sleep, Father,” she said.
“And don’t leave them candles burning all night.”
She lingered for a moment, then turned. “Well, good night, then.”
“Good night, Nora.”
He got up a minute later and blew out the candles, mostly because he knew she wouldn’t rest until they were out and he was in bed. In the rear of the chapel were five rooms. A kitchen, a bathroom, the pantry which now served as Nora’s bedroom, an office and the narrow room that was Father Ken’s bedroom, all in less than 500 square feet. Another door led out of the kitchen into a small patio garden. There was no dirt, just concrete and a few tenacious weeds pushing up through the cracks, but Nora kept a container garden going. She grew all the vegetables that they ate: tomatoes, cukes, squash, okra, peppers, beans and peas. Mustard greens and kale and onions. There were also the herbs, oregano, basil, rosemary and garlic. She’d even grown potatoes and corn. As the summer wore on, she would freeze or can the excess bounty. And when the harvest outpaced storage space, she would set up a free produce market on the sidewalk outside, leaving the crop unattended so anyone could take anything they needed or wanted.
Father lay, fully clothed on his bed, awake, nursing his second beer. He longed for a third. A third beer would bring sleep. But a third would also bring, once morning came, a headache and blurry thinking. Three weddings. Nora was right, he was crazy to allow it. Some time after midnight, sleep came for him.
Camilla ran her weddings as tightly controlled as any military mission. She had hired extra help. Young, quiet, black teenaged boys carried flowers to the alter, taped bunting and wired sprays of flowers to the ends of pews. Carpets were rolled down the aisle. Then they gathered in a silent group in the back courtyard until the last guest left. They again sprang into motion, tearing down the decorations, sweeping up the aisles.
Nora stayed mostly in her room, coming out after the first wedding to cluck her tongue at the clean up job. Father Ken stood just out of sight in the rear of the chapel, waiting on Camille’s signal to step up to the alter and smile benignly at the gathered crowd of strangers. He worried about sounding bored. After his part, he would sit at the kitchen table, sipping coffee, trying to stay out of the way, feeling slightly out of place in his own home. Like an actor in a play.
After the second wedding, there was a tight hour and a half gap before the third began. The crew from the first wedding showed back up to help set up. A rail thin boy of about sixteen approached the Father apprehensively.
“I think that lady sick,” he said with a vague gesture toward the courtyard.
“What lady?” Father Ken asked as he stood.
The boy shrugged. “Dunno. She jes’ laying there.”
The Father felt streams of ice shooting along his nerve endings as he hurried outside. He knew before he reached her. As soon as he reached the back door, he saw her, rather, he saw her feet, clad in her sprung gray sneakers, sticking out between rows of containers.
“Nora?” he called as he took the few steps to her, knowing she was dead. He knelt beside her, a trembling hand reaching out to feel for a pulse at her neck, but that wasn’t really necessary. Her lips and face were blue and her skin cool to the touch. He felt a spasm of guilt. How long had she been here? He pushed back the lock of hair that had fallen across her face.
He turned to look over his shoulder at the crowd of boys standing behind him. “Can one of you bring me the phone from the kitchen?”
The same boy who had told him brought him the phone. “She dead?”
Father Ken dialed 911 and after apologizing for it not being a true emergency, explained what had happened. He was assured that an ambulance and a police car were on the way and to please not disturb the body.
The body. He sat down beside her, wondering if holding her hand would be disturbing the body. He held it anyway.
“What in the hell is going on?”
Camille’s voice cut through the silence that had fallen in the courtyard. “Why aren’t you getting set up?”
The boys melted back into the chapel, leaving Camille a clear view. Her high heels clacked loudly across the concrete. “Jesus Christ, Father. What happened?”
“I suspect a stroke,” he said, amazed at how far away his voice sounded. “The police are on the way. She’s dead.”
Out of the corner of his eye, he saw her glance at her watch. “I…I’m so sorry.” There was a long pause. “Do you…do you think you….could still do the ceremony?”
And he thought about it because he took his obligations seriously. But the idea of officiating over the wedding of complete strangers while Nora’s body lay cold and alone made him feel so sick and lonely that he could only shake his head. No.
Camille’s expression clearly told him he’d made the wrong choice in her opinion. She hesitated for a moment, then whipped out her cell phone.
“I need a reverend, pastor, justice of the peace, notary, someone who can legally perform a wedding and I need them in ten minutes,” she said to whatever poor soul answered her call.
She listened for a moment. “Great, wonderful.” She hung up and looked down at Father Ken. “I have someone coming. Can he wear your robes?”
From down the street came the whoop-whoop of the ambulance’s horn as it cleared the intersection. He looked up at Camille. “Do your wedding,” he said, “then leave. Do not come back.”
She looked shocked, then angry, but finally dredged up the humanity to look ashamed before turning and heading back into the chapel.
The police officer knelt down beside Nora, touching the same place on her throat that the Father had in his examination. The radio at his belt squawked loudly and Father Ken had a brief, childish hope that the police car and ambulance were blocking the wedding guests from entering the chapel.
The officer, Officer Heyward, asked questions. When did he find her? How long since he’d last seen her? Any medical conditions?
The emergency medical technicians arrived, gurney clattering loudly along the jagged pavement. One of them, a young woman did a more thorough examination. She shook her head. “Way too long,” she said.
Officer Heyward turned back to the Father. “Her name? Next of kin?”
Father Ken was taken aback by the realization that he couldn’t answer those questions. “She said her name was Nora,” he said.
Nora’s gift with the garden often led the Father to think she’d come from the country. One of the islands, perhaps. She never spoke of her past. Not since the night four years past that he’d found her, bruised and bloody, her face a Halloween horror mask. She was curled under a ragged overcoat in the corner of the walled garden. Sitting at his table, drinking the coffee he’d made for her, she refused his offer to take her to the hospital.
Her fingers had gently probed the swollen contours of her face. “Ain’t nothing broke,” she told him with a certainty and simplicity that made him weary with the world.
She had also refused to go to the battered women’s shelter or the homeless shelter. She’d asked only to sleep on his floor that night so she could get warm. He offered his narrow bed, which she refused.
“Floor’s good enough for the likes of me,” she said.
The next morning, he had awakened to find her cleaning the kitchen. She’d already made the bathroom spotless and rearranged the pantry. She laid a plate of eggs and homefried potatoes on the table before him.
Then she’d just stayed.
Office Heyward looked suspiciously amused, perhaps suspecting a more intimate relationship. Father Ken waved a hand back toward the kitchen door. “Perhaps there might be something in her room? I never pried into her personal life.”
“She was just a housekeeper then?”
Essentially that was true. But it felt incomplete. “No,” the Father replied slowly, “she was also a friend. A good person.”
He stood in the kitchen while her room was searched. He wasn’t surprised when nothing was found. He nodded as the procedure was explained to him. An autopsy was required because it was an unattended death. The coroner would notify him about funeral arrangements. Officer Heyward listed him as next of kin.
Three days later the Father officiated graveside at the pauper’s funeral the city provided. In attendance were the gravediggers, the funeral home employee and himself. After the prayers were completed, he placed a small bouquet of flowers on the coffin. He sat in a chair provided by the funeral home employee and watched as the coffin was lowered. The gravediggers seemed hesitant to begin covering the coffin, but Father Ken told them to go ahead. He wanted to hear the dirt hitting the coffin. The finality of it. He wanted some revelation that this was not the end, that there was something else for Nora. He wanted to feel that she had gone on to a place where she had loved ones and peace.
But he just felt cold and sad.
The funeral home employee, just a young man, probably still learning the ropes, touched the Father lightly on the shoulder. “Sir, uh, Father? Would you like me to drive you home?”
As the hearse approached the chapel, the Father saw two people sitting on the front porch. When he stepped out onto the sidewalk, he realized with a jolt that the young man was Don’t, the boy who’d sought sanctuary so many years ago. He didn’t recognize the woman sitting beside the boy, now a young man. She had a brown paper bag on her lap. Don’t stood up as the Father neared the steps.
“Father Ken,” Don’t said, holding out a hand.
He shook the offered hand in surprise. “Don’t.”
The young man grinned. “It’s Robert. Robert Manigault.” He lifted a hand towards the woman, who stood up. “This is Vernie Hagood.”
Father Ken shook her hand then stood looking at them. They looked back.
“We’d like to talk to you about Miz Nora,” Vernie said.
They settled at the small kitchen table after Father Ken brought the extra chair in from his desk. Just the act of sitting down at the table brought on a wave of sad nostalgia, the same feeling had washed over him that morning when trying to brew up a pot of coffee. He missed her. Their companionship and friendship had been so quiet and so natural that he now felt as if everything was just slightly off kilter.
Vernie pulled a casserole out of the bag she’d carried in and put it in the refrigerator.
“I’d like to talk to you about Miz Nora’s garden,” she began. “I work at one of the big houses down on the Battery as a maid and cook. One day last summer, the lady I work for forgot to stop by the bank for my pay. She pays me in cash only. And she laughed about it and asked if I could wait until Monday. Well, I smiled and said ‘yes, Ma’am’ cos what else could I say? But I was needing that money bad. I didn’t have no food in the house and two children to feed all weekend. I was walking home, wondering what under heaven I was gonna do and lo and behold, there on the sidewalk, Miz Nora had put out piles of veggies with a sign saying, ‘free, help yourself’. Because of her was the only reason my grandbabies had food that weekend. And I want to know if I can work her garden now that she is gone. Keep up with the giving it to those who need it.”
Father Ken nodded and turned to Don’t….Robert. “And you? Do you have a request?”
“A while ago, Miz Nora caught me tagging, uh, spray painting? Graffiti?”
The Father nodded, “I know what tagging is.”
“Well, she admired my work and told me that I was a real talented artist. She asked me to draw some pictures on paper and bring them to her. When I did, she told me that God gives everyone a talent, but it is up to us to decide how to use that talent. She made me go with her to some art store and she showed me the pictures there by a man named Jonathan Green. I’d never seen such paintings in my life. Miz Nora told me that the only difference between me and Mr. Green is that I was putting my talent on the back of street signs and he was putting his on canvas.”
“Jonathan Green certainly is inspiring,” Father Ken murmured.
“Well, at first I thought she was tripping. I mean, I can’t hardly read. I stopped paying attention in school around fifth grade and quit between eighth and ninth grades. How was I gonna be an artist. You know what she told me?”
The Father and Vernie both shook their heads.
“One thing at a time,” Robert said. “Sounded so stupid. But then she told me to come back and she would start helping me to read. Said once I got better at that, she’d help me study to take my GED test. Then I could go to art school. She took me to the library and showed me stuff about scholarships.”
Robert trailed off, drumming his fingers on the table. “I don’t want to stop. At first I was mad cos she died and she was the only person who ever gave me a real hope. The first person who believed in me and got me to believe in me. And I thought, when she died, well to hell with it. Sorry Father!”
“It’s alright, Robert. I’ve felt the same many times.”
“But I went back to look at those paintings again. And they were so amazing. And I still wanted to do that. I still wanted to learn how. And I wanted to ask. Would you help me? Study for the GED I mean?”
Father Ken rubbed at his face. Right under his nose, he thought. While he sat in his room reading and brooding about the choice he’d made for his life, she’d been simply doing what needed to be done.
He reached across the small table to grasp both their hands. “Yes.”