Sunday, December 04, 2005

Chapter V. Pickled Oracle

When I began this chapter, it seemed that the awkwardnesses of the early stages were leaving. I was warming to my subject. And, perhaps most telling of all, I had finally left behind all the original matter, created way back in 1968, in which Bill became involved with a female innkeeper.

It happened that Bill and Mr. Cobb had run into each other several times around the town. Mr. Cobb had chatted and clapped his back in his hearty, embracing way. Always the invitation to attend Seekers’ Night discussions on Wednesdays in Lent. Always the snotty refusal. Which was a stupid approach, because the clergyman had endless reserves of evangelizing pluck.

Bill decided that he would have a change of heart. He would now succumb to the needy desperation at the heart of Christian persistence.

Pretend you’re a dove but act like a serpent. Some good churchy advice for a change.

The next day at noon, sober and well-scrubbed--so unlike his usual appearance that Claire had eyed him askance and said, “Eh, la belle Champoux you are meeting?”--Bill dawdled outside the state package store. By 12:10 the Rev. Mr. Cobb and Mrs. Cobb appeared around the corner with their wee box of pastry, no doubt intended for the Seekers’ Night dupes.

Bill had to smile at their promptness.

“There you are, Mr. Blake! My, you look in excellent health today!” He boomed without an insinuating note in his voice. All Christian artlessness.

Spirited hellos all around.

Bill allowed his hand to be crushed and decided to return the greeting in the right spirit. “Well, I suspect it’s the sunshine today! Feels like spring is right around the corner!” He smiled and smiled. He used muscles he thought had atrophied.

“I think you’re right! Well,” Mr. Cobb said, taking a deeply appreciative breath, “what are your plans today? Anything exciting on the schedule?” This was his wife’s cue to head into the store.

“What day is it?”

“Wednesday. Prince Spaghetti Day.” They chuckled like chuckleheads at this mild regional joke.

“No, I don’t think so,” Bill said. “I’m kind of bored to tell you the truth.”

“Really? Lucky you. I’m too busy to be bored. Wednesdays in Lent are especially busy for me, since I don’t have an associate. There are things scheduled from early in the morning till late in the evening.”

“Oh, idle hands and the Devil’s play, etc.”

“You bet! There’s Morning Prayer at 7 AM, Bible Study at eight. Pastoral duties all morning--visiting the sick and all that--then I have to prepare the sermon for the afternoon Eucharist, that is, Communion, which begins at 5:30. I lead the prayer at the start of the AA meeting at 6:30. Then we have the Seekers’ Group at 7--“

Bill’s expression sharpened a bit when this was mentioned. He hoped it conveyed a spiritual hunger.

Mr. Cobb smiled gently. “It’s a good place to go to ask some basic, important questions. You don’t get anywhere until you ask the right questions. It’s just a few people, very low-key and friendly.”

“But--but I’m not a church member.“

“That doesn’t matter. It’s open to all. We have Methodists, Catholics, even the occasional Jewish person.”

Bused in from Montreal, Bill thought. But he said, “Zat so? Sounds interesting. Maybe it’ll help…” He permitted a sigh to escape.

Mr. Cobb was beside himself. “Excellent!” He pumped Bill’s hand. “We’ll give you a very warm welcome, Mr. Blake. Parish hall at seven o’clock. God bless you!”

Mrs. Cobb emerged with her bags of booze. “What’s all the celebration about?”

“Mr. Blake is coming to Seekers tonight!”

Her mild eyes bore through Bill. “Really now?”

* * * *

The smell of old prayer books competed with the smell of coffee held too long in unclean urns. A few turnovers and bird’s nests were arranged on a couple of glass dessert plates.

“Looks like a Baptist wedding reception,” Bill thought out loud. And caught a sharp look from Mrs. Cobb, who passed out of the parish hall as her husband came in.

“Come in, folks. Come right in, make yourselves comfortable.”

A few dejected creatures with bulbous noses and large pores entered in single file.

Bill checked his watch. 6:55. “Excuse me, am I in the right room?”

Mr. Cobb gauged his expression and opted for the direct approach. “Mr. Blake, my seekers don’t seem to be seeking tonight. Even my paraclete Douglas begged off. So, if you don’t mind, I would like to combine Seekers with AA.”

“I sure as hell do mind.” The dejected sinners gave him an appraising glance and smirked among themselves. “You creeps can whine and eat your shitty pastries without me.”

“Please, Mr.--“

“No last names, remember.” Bill brushed past him. Perfidious Anglican. Mrs. Cobb was standing in the vestibule that led to the sanctuary. She nodded disparagingly toward the group in the hall.

“Mr. Blake, I would invite you to the rectory for a drink—“

“And I would accept.”

She stood in the stark light and pointed the way like a sibyl. She preceded him across the little yard to the rectory, muttering, “It will be so nice not to drink alone.”

Within moments they were cradling drinks in their hands, seated cozily in front of a pungent coal fire. The living room was tiny, the furniture was good but worn, the walls were covered with hunting prints. There was beagle and mallard bric-a-brac all over the place. Nary a cross or devotional book to be found. Bill was prepared to thank God or the minor deities of good taste for that tender mercy; even Dora wouldn’t have made too many snotty comments about the decorating.

He breathed a sigh of relaxation and took a long hit of the Scotch. It was Black & White, and he grimaced. Aside from its sort of lousy quality, there were uncherished memories associated with the stuff. His ex-wife had favored it. The taste of it made him think of many nasty arguments and a few knock-down, drag-out fights. Now she’s married to that BU professor she’s probably reduced to guzzling cooking sherry.

He browsed the pastures of memory for he didn’t know low long. He realized Mrs. Cobb was speaking. Her tone was different from her usual bland agreeableness.

“…been here almost five years, and I have to say that if it wasn’t for Douglas Broadwood and his crowd, I’d have been ready to leave this village about four and a half years ago. I’m from Boston, and Russell is from New York, so these little hamlets at the end of the line aren’t really our cup of tea. Or Scotch. This is what happens when you run afoul of a bishop who’s a power-hungry sneak. There’s something redundant in there, I think.

“Still, even Douglas surprises me sometimes. So excessively upright. Of all people. So self-limiting. One would think that he would be tolerant--forgiving of human peccadilloes--given some of the things he got up to in—“

Mrs. Cobb paused to pour herself another drink. Bill reached over and took hold of the bottle, refilled his own glass. “I guess I shouldn’t be ungrateful,” she went on, “but, you see, one grows so utterly sick of even one’s best friends in a tiny place like this. You come to hate the sight of them. Everyone with their designs. Their petty, nasty spites. All their squalid little betrayals. Quite like something out of the novel they’re filming here this summer. And what do you do? You do your little round, you to go dinner--worse, you go to progressive dinners with people serving the most unpalatable junk you’ve ever tasted in your life. Jello and cream cheese, pigs in a blanket, all sorts of amazing horrors! You go to church, bury the lucky ones, marry the stupid ones, on and on and on. My God, I do get sick of it.” She drank deeply as if to forget.

Bill tried to grin sympathetically. But he was taken aback. It was one thing for him to sneer at everything, quite another for a minister’s wife. “It is hard, Mrs. Cobb—“

“Allie, please. Short for Aletheia, can you believe it. Greek for Truth. My father was a very idealistic attorney. Friend of the Common Man. Hence broke. So broke that my marrying a clergyman seemed to be a clever move.” She laughed at herself in a girlish way. She didn’t look too bad when she was loaded, sloughing off all care, etc. He considered her with renewed interest.

She sloughed off more care and poured another.

“So what were some of the things Douglas got up to in, I would guess, New York?”

She cocked her head at him.

“I find it hard to believe!” He laughed. It sounded hollow to him, and he knew it sounded phony to her; she wasn’t that shitfaced yet.

“You’ll have to find out for yourself,” she said slyly. “I should think you’d be able to get the information out of him pretty easily. You’re not without charm, Mr. Blake. And I think he would welcome your…queries.” She seemed pleased with her phrasing and smiled complacently into the fire.

He felt something cold invade his guts. “What? What’s that supposed to mean?”

“Oh, these smalltown habits of innuendo! I have said too much. Forgive me.”

He didn’t think she looked any too contrite.

“I’ve only been here a few weeks. How could--?”

“Haven’t you ever heard of love at first sight?”

He stood up. “I’d better…”

“And to think you’ve conquered both of them--what a riot.”

“Thanks for an illuminating—“

“I think you’ve come along at the right time.”

He waited for elucidation but just got a glintingly hard look. He began to get up.

“Oh, don’t go now,” she implored. “Russell will be listening to their litanies of self-pity for hours yet. He takes his job seriously. Sad cases preoccupy him.”

“No. I--good night.”

Mrs. Cobb sat looking up at him, amused. “You are really a fool. Make things very hard for yourself, don’t you?”

* * * *

A gusty east wind had brought in sleet and freezing rain. The town’s streets were nearly deserted. Bill trudged up the hill to Armitage Street. The porch light was on. The curtain at the front door twitched. He went slowly up the walk and paused on the porch steps. The curtains moved again. Douglas peeped out and opened the door.

“Is there anything wrong, Bill?”

“No.” Bill went up and stood at the doorway until Douglas moved to the side and let him through. “Good night.”

Halfway up the stairs he looked back down. Douglas was standing with one hand on the banister. His face was strained, eyes concerned. When he read Bill’s expression, his concern became fear.

“Bill,” he said. “Mr. Blake—“

“Good night,” Bill said again. He shut his door behind him. The turning of the key in the lock sounded like a shot.

Douglas closed up the house. He climbed the stairs as if the shadows would come alive. He closed his door but did not lock it.


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