The Good Life _     _    _    _    _    _    _    _    _    _    _    _    _  Mark and Rebecca Spencer

 

 

FOUR

 

     I can see back forty years, clear as if it were . . . no longer ago than last week--Rose holding her baby, Rosebud, a tiny pink thing wrapped in a white blanket, cradled in Rose's arms as she stood next to her husband at the doors of the Methodist church after Sunday morning worship, Reverend Johnson shaking everyone's hand, the women making over Rosebud, Rose small and shy and beautiful. 

     Reverend Johnson always smelled of strong cologne and hair oil and was always red faced and grew more portly every month from all the dinners he got invited to.  He delivered his sermons in a booming voice.  The stained-glass windows vibrated.  He scared some people, who started going to the Presbyterian church instead, but the old ladies found him inspiring, often left church with tears trapped in the wrinkles of their faces.  When he wasn't preaching, he was jolly, and I heard he had a good head for business.  The owner of the hardware store told me once that when Reverend Johnson wasn't preaching he didn't even seem like a pastor but like a normal person.

     I missed a lot of what the reverend said in his sermons.  I was too busy looking at his wife.  There's no denying the power of a woman's looks--the things a man will do and become just because of a woman's eyes and hair and skin and figure.  A man will do all kinds of bad and stupid things.  It's rare that a beautiful woman will inspire a man to perform some act of great kindness or creation.  It's more likely he will start a war.  A woman will do all kinds of bad and stupid things, too, of course, but there's usually more involved than just the man's looks.  Women aren't nearly as stupid and weak and impractical as men are.

     Rose often wore a small hat with a white veil, and she always kept her blonde hair pulled back in that tight bun, pulled back so severely it looked as though it hurt.  None of the old women in the county who read the future in coffee grounds or tea leaves predicted Rose's leaving the reverend for a county judge and then having a third husband who was a traveling barbed-wire salesman from Kansas .

     In the 1950's, the women all wore little brimless hats and white gloves to church.  And they all wore red lipstick--a woman couldn't kiss a man without making a mess of his face.

     One Wednesday afternoon the first spring Rose was in Adams County , when I was trying to plant crops and keep up with lesson plans both, I came home from the high school, and there was a car beside the house.  It was a faded-black '39 Plymouth , and the tires looked dangerously bald.  The tail pipe was wired to the undercarriage with a coat hanger.  It turned out to be Rose's car, and later I thought it was strange that her car would be so beat-up because Reverend Johnson tooled around in a new red and white Chevy Bel Air.

     Rose and Meg were sitting in the living room.  Rose held a cup of tea.  They were laughing, Meg not seeming to care for once about how her teeth looked.

     "What's the party about?" I said.  I smiled.  I looked at Rose for a moment too long or maybe just too intensely.  I shifted my gaze to Meg, then to the window, outside of which a rose bush was blooming and further out in the yard an apple tree was in blossom.

     Meg and Rose didn't say anything.  Meg covered her mouth.  Rose looked me up and down.  I fidgeted. 

     "Talking about church?" I said, feeling like an idiot.

     They both burst out laughing.

     Rose said, "It started out that way."  Then she cleared her throat.  "But I'm not very good at these social calls."

     "It's my fault," Meg said.  "I got Mrs. Johnson onto talking about babies."

     "And husbands," Rose said, still smiling.

     Meg blushed.

     "I had better go," Rose said.  "If I don't hurry home, I'll have to pay the sitter another quarter."  She shook hands with Meg.  Rose was somber now.  "I'll pray for you."

     "Thank you, Mrs. Johnson," Meg said.

     "Call me Rose."

     After she left, her old car sputtering and smoking away up the dirt driveway to the road, I asked Meg, "What was that all about?  I think I missed something."

     Meg shook her head, grinned, shrugged.  "She's just making the rounds.  You know, getting to know the church women."  Meg paused.  "She's nice, but she doesn't seem like a minister's wife.  Reverend Olaf's wife was so devout.  Remember?  She couldn't speak a sentence without mentioning Jesus.  `Sweet Jesus would approve of this apple pie,' she'd say.  Or, `Jesus would weep if He heard some of the music that's on the radio now days.'"  It wasn't just people's phone voices that Meg could

mimic.  "Or, `Jesus wouldn't mind if I had another crumb cake, I don't think.'  Remember?  Of course there's about a fifty-year difference between Mrs. Johnson and Mrs. Olaf.  But it's not just age.  This Mrs. Johnson--Rose--seems . . . uncomfortable playing the role of preacher's wife.  She was all stiff when she first got here.  Not snobbish.  Just drab or something, like she was reciting lines she had learned.  `Hello, Mrs. Anderson.  I am trying to get to know all the ladies in our church better and to inquire as to whether there are any special spiritual needs in regard to which my husband and I can be of assistance.'"

     I said, "So you like her or not?"

     Meg looked at me.  "You probably like her."

     "Why?  What do you mean?"

     "Any man is going to like any woman who looks the way she does.  Itís like having Marilyn Monroe move to town.  I hear the men talk."

     "Well, yeah, she's pretty.  I'll admit that."

     "She sure is.  And she is nice.  And when she started talking about babies . . . and other things, she came to life."

     I looked at the bible that always lay on the end table next to the sofa.  "She'll have to be careful.  Church people are quick to find fault and especially quick when it comes to the preacher and his wife."

     "Yes.  If she keeps caring what they think."

     The phone rang then, or I heard the cows bawling for me to come attend to them.

     That was the only time Meg and I talked about Rose until after the picnic in June when all hell broke loose.

 

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