The Good Life _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ Mark and Rebecca Spencer
The good life.
The church picnic.
Sharp blue sky, white clouds like the ones angels play on in cartoons and movies. Every Methodist in the county was at the Rodgers' farm. Rodgers owned nine hundred acres of tillable ground and three hundred of woods, bought new Farmall tractors every February same as people with too much money or no sense get a new car every October.
Forty years have not dimmed the day for me.
Barbecue pits were smoking. People sat in clusters on blankets. Men pitched horse shoes. Kids were having potato sack races. Women held babies and made sure everyone was fed well. Nearby, on a hillock was the Rodgers' big white house.
All afternoon, Rose and I looked across distances at each other. Meg wandered off, talking with a group of women
with babies. One of them was Carla Jamison, who couldn't have babies. She held Rose's baby, Rosebud, all afternoon as if she were her own. In years to come there would be rumors about her and Reverend Rodney, but no one ever knew for sure.
Reverend Rodney ate more than any man there and talked more. I saw him pitch one horse shoe, which landed twenty feet beyond the post. The Reverend laughed loud and strolled off to join a group of business men. All the men had taken their suit coats off, loosened their ties, and rolled up their sleeves, except for one in a brown suit who still looked as he had that morning in church. He stood shaking his head and saying, "I just don't understand why God would send us inflation and uppity niggers at the same time. Must be a test of our faith. Don't you think? I mean, let's be logical."
Rose and I circled groups, wandering, eyeing each other over the heads of old women in lawn chairs with Bibles on their laps or knitting projects, eyeing each other from across an improvised course for sack racers, eyeing each other from opposite ends of a field where children were picking wild flowers.
She and I pretended to everyone and ourselves that we were strolling aimlessly, but we eventually ended up at almost the same time at the mouth of a trail leading into the woods. We said nothing. For my part, I had no idea what to say. I walked along the trail, her shoulder brushing my arm. The backs of our hands touched. The sun lit up the canopy of lush branches above us.
When the light suddenly disappeared, having raced away out of the forest, skimming the tree tops, Rose and I were startled. It was almost like night. We turned to each other. My knees trembled. I looked at her eyes, her chin, her lips. I was aware of the smells of the woods, her perfume, then realized my hand was on her waist. We leaned toward each other, the branches above us stirring, and our lips met.
Then the sun reappeared. A cloud moved on, and the light raced back into the woods, skimming over the tree tops.
Rose pushed hard against my chest, pushed me away, and I stumbled off the path into a tangle of vines.
"I'm sorry," I said almost shouting.
She had turned her back to me, her shoulders shaking. I heard her crying.
I took a deep breath, exhaled, and then spoke slowly, enunciating each word carefully: "It will never happen again. I swear." I wanted to add, And please don't tell anyone.
I stepped out of the brush, back onto the path but was careful not to get too close. I would never touch her again, I promised myself.
She was shaking her head as she turned to me. "It's not that. It's not us kissing. Not exactly," she said. "It's that I don't believe in God anymore."
"You shouldn't say such things." I looked up through the trees, searching for patches of sky.
"Not much I mean."
"Then you still do."
"But I want you so much. I've prayed about it. I've prayed not to want you."
I shook my head, my lips tingling, my heart pounding.
"Rod knows I'm not happy."
I needed to swallow, but it wasn't easy. I said, "He doesn't think I'm--"
"No. I have never mentioned you. I've just let him know I'm not happy with him."
"What does he say about it?"
She smirked. "Nothing really. When we fight and I tell him how miserable I am, he tells me to keep my voice down. He says it's okay for God to know our business, but what's important is that the neighbors don't."
"Meg and I--"
"He's a stupid pig. Or maybe I am. Maybe I should just accept things. But all he really cares about is money, sex, and keeping up appearances."
"Reverend Rodney?" I felt uneasy hearing a woman use the word "sex." It was especially strange that a preacher's wife would speak it, even a preacher's wife who had just kissed me, whose tongue I felt at just the moment when the light startled us apart.
"He cares plenty about what people think of him, and he certainly doesn't want people to know that all he really cares about is money and . . . ."
"I can't spend a penny without having the wrath of Rodney descend on me."
"I noticed you've got bald tires on that car of yours. That's not safe."
"Rodney will wait till they blow out."
"It seems strange that--"
"He's worse about sex. When he grabs me for the third or fourth time in a day and starts slobbering on my face like a dog, if I hesitate, he calls me a cold bitch."
I did not want to hear this. "Let's walk," I said.
We held hands. My heart kept pounding, and I felt sick with guilt because I had kissed her and because I wanted to kiss her again, and I felt sick because here I was, holding her hand and I knew I shouldn't be doing even that, and I felt sick because she was not stopping on the narrow path with the bright canopy of leaves above us and was not tilting her face up to me and pressing her breasts against me. I squeezed her small, soft hand.
Rose stopped walking, but she didn't press herself against me. She said, "I'll leave him, and you could leave Meg."
I looked into her eyes, saw in her pupils a small distorted reflection of myself. I said nothing, started walking again, my hand sweating in hers.
Walking deeper into the woods, Rose and I could have made plans and acted on them. Later, I would reflect on how we could have started meeting at motels or filed for divorces, or we could have run away--probably out west. I could imagine us in my Dodge pickup, driving fast along those straight, flat highways, Rose's blonde hair loose and blowing back from her face. But with no hills or trees, I would have felt exposed, like naked Adam trying to hide from God. Then again, with Rose next to me, maybe it would not have mattered.
Rose said nothing. Occasionally she squeezed my hand. My mouth was dry. My mind was spinning. I felt an urgent need to say something. When I opened my mouth, the words that came out surprised me: "Rodney can't be all bad."
"No," she said. "He's not all bad." She released my hand, and I felt like an idiot. She stepped from the path and leaned against a cedar tree. "He adores Rosebud. I think he'll be a good father to her. There are reasons for at least some of the ways he is."
"What do you mean?"
"Like his parents." Rose shuddered. "His parents are horrible people. We went to Illinois to a Bible conference, and Rod made a side trip to show me the . . . hole he grew up in. He had told me things, mainly about growing up poor. At first I thought he was taking me there because he wanted me to understand him better or feel sorry for him. Then we got there, and I thought he wanted to torture me. Then I realized that what he really wanted to do was show me off." Rose had been looking at the ground. Now she looked up at me. Her eyes dropped, and she stared at the front of my pants for a moment, then back at the ground. "I never want to be within a hundred miles of those people again. His mother was drunk. A fat old woman. The town whore. His father was drunk, too."
"What do they think of Rodney being a preacher?"
"They didn't think much of it. He used to preach to them, but that time I met them all he did was lie to them about his salary, and he talked about all the fringe benefits of being a preacher, like gifts and dinner invitations. They just nodded their heads. His father grunted once and told him he knew guys dumb as sticks who had union jobs making real money." Rose shook her head. "We were there for only about an hour, thank God. Their house was a wreck. They were half dressed. Drunk. The place smelled. They smelled. Rod was showing me off. He acted kind of like them. He slouched and smirked. He didn't say it, but it was like he was bringing me to them and announcing, ‘Hey, I'm a hotshot with a good job and I'm married to this nice piece of ass.’"
"His mother said I was a `pretty little thang' in a bitchy way. His father stared at my breasts."
Then I couldn't help looking at her breasts. She looked up, caught my eyes, and smiled. I looked at the ground and felt my face burn. "It's okay," she said. "You can look all you want."
"I would think Rodney would be trying to save them?"
"He tried for years. He became a preacher because he thought he could help them, change them. When he was eight he started going to church on his own. He was preaching when he was fourteen. Walked six miles every Sunday morning. And night. And Wednesdays. People paid attention to him at church, and he thought if he went, God would make his parents into normal people. When merely going to church and praying didn't work, he thought if he became a minister then God would work His magic. And Rod preached to them. One time his mother started throwing plates at him. His father held up a pocketknife and threatened to cut his throat if he didn't shut up. They kept on boozing and whoring."
I waited a minute. A breeze shook the tree tops. Then I said, "What kept him going, kept him preaching?"
"By the time he realized his preaching would never change them and that God wasn't going to step in and he started getting really bitter about it all, he'd been preaching for years, and he was finding that preaching had unexpected . . . well, fringe benefits." She cocked her head and looked up at me out of the corner of her eye.
I looked at her and shook my head.
"The money wasn't great, but the work was easier than what any man in Rod's family--on either side--had ever done. His older brother is a hod carrier. His mother cleaned people's houses. Her father cleaned cars for a used-car dealer. Rod liked wearing a suit and keeping his hands clean. People spoke to him in a respectful way, a way he never heard anyone speak to his father. He got a lot of free meals, and best of all, he found out women like preachers. We had been married a few months when told me all about it. I was sick with the flu, but he wanted to have sex anyway. Said he'd go elsewhere for it if I didn't give it to him. He said preachers got more free pussy than traveling salesmen."
I looked away. The word she had just used didn't seem to go with her looks. Then I looked back at her. I was starting to realize that she was different from what I had thought. Her crudeness was disturbing. It made her repulsive. At the same time it made me want to touch her even more.
Meg would never have said "pussy." On one or two occasions, Meg had referred vaguely to my "thing" and to her "thing." In the dark, under blankets, her flannel night gown pulled up over her hips, she had said, "Be careful with that thing. You'll hurt my thing." Now in the woods, I imagined Rose naked on a white sheet in a room full of daylight. I looked at the ground, shifted my weight from one foot to the other. I started to speak but had to clear my throat first. "I guess Rodney turned out different from the way he was when you courted."
"I was sixteen and he was twenty-five when he took the place of the old reverend at my parents' church in Sandusky . He took a special interest in me, and I thought he was good looking. He didn't have his gut yet, and he could talk more and better than any boy or man I had ever met. Mom and Dad thought he was counseling me. He was counseling me all right. On the top of his desk. On the floor--"
"I'd gotten caught shoplifting some panty hose and costume jewelry from Woolworth's about the same time he came to our church. I just wanted to see how it would feel to steal something. I didn't take anything worth more than a dollar. But my parents thought I was on the road to prison and Hell, so they were glad the new minister took a special interest in me." Rose laughed. "He'd lock the door to his office in the back of the church. He'd ask me about school and teachers and a lot of questions about boys. Did I like boys much? Did I have a boyfriend? What had my boyfriends been like? Had I done anything with them I regretted? He hugged me a lot the way some preachers hug everybody. Then one day at the end of my counseling session, he kissed me, too. The next day he kissed me longer. When he started feeling me up, he said it was all right. Hell, he was my preacher. I figured he should know what was all right. I was just a dumb kid."
We heard a ruckus a few feet away. We watched a squirrel chase another squirrel up a tree. "Playing," I said but I didn't smile. The light disappeared. The woods were dark for a moment. Then the sun was in the tree tops again. "We better go back," I said.
Rose nodded, stood, and we walked without touching. We didn't talk for a long time. I was confused about who Rose was and about who I was and wanted to be.
Then she stopped. I looked at her, and she said, "Please. Think about it."
"What?" I looked at her and shook my head. "Think about what?"
"Us being together. I could leave him. I don't care."
"Meg--" I said, but before I could say more, Rose pressed against me, was kissing me. Her tongue on my lips, on my teeth . . . .
We heard children giggling and running through the woods. A girl said, "Did you see?"
I looked at Rose, my mouth open, I'm sure.
"Come on," she said.
I didn't move.
And she went ahead.
When she, then I a moment later, stepped out of the woods, every Methodist in that field was looking at us. Women in dresses or skirts that went down to their ankles, their stiff 1950's hair-dos durable against the wind; men with crew-cuts or slicked down hair, their shirt sleeves rolled up, their ties loosened; little boys in stripped shirts and jeans, little girls in pink or white dresses, some with bows in their hair.
The kids were sweaty from playing tag and running races, their faces pink. The men pitching horseshoes had paused. A thin old man holding a horseshoe in each of his hands stood blinking at me and Rose. A stout man next to him chewed his tobacco in slow motion. Women who had been knitting had their needles poised. The gray-haired women with Bibles on their laps stared boldly at me and Rose, the wind rustling and flipping the tissue-thin pages of the black Bibles.
The wind carried a few muttered words to my ears: "More than an hour." "Don't you see?" "God knows."
Reverend Rodney was on the edge of the crowd, holding a drumstick, his eyes narrowed, his mouth agape, his face pink and then red and then deepening to purple.
I couldn't move, but Rose was sauntering forward, smiling and nodding, entering the crowd, which parted before her as she
approached Rodney. She went up to her husband and met his stare. His mouth remained open. The drumstick dropped from his hand and disappeared into the lush grass.
I wanted to turn, bolt back into the woods. But out of the corner of my eye I saw someone coming toward me. I flinched as the figure drew near.
"It's time to go," Meg said. She took my arm. I nodded.
Then I was in my Dodge pick-up, and Meg was driving. When I turned my head and looked at her, she said bluntly, "You have lipstick on your mouth."
My heart pounded, harder than it had in the woods. Meg was pale. Her dark eyes flashed.
"Something else," Meg said. She looked straight ahead at the road. We were driving into the sun, but she didn't squint. The new fan belt I'd recently put on the truck was too tight and squealed. I was afraid it would snap. "I've been waiting for the right time to tell you." I waited, drums in my head, my chest tight as that new fan belt. Then she said, "I'm going to have a baby."