Oct/Nov 2008  •   Fiction


by Roxanne Payne

I'm supposed to phone this elderly woman nobody can do anything with. I'm supposed to tell her on behalf of several influential members of our congregation, she should stop coming to church, that she's a disturbing influence, a "negative force." I don't want to phone her, I don't know how to do these things, but the others say she no longer listens to them, there's "too much water under the bridge." Maybe she'll listen to me, they say. Me. Right.

The last of the papers I'm grading is Joey Becker's written summary of his Show and Tell this morning. "Squids have came to the ocean by California. Millions and maybe more. They eat people and sharks. Squids flash red and white on there head when they are freked out. There many arms attack when frekd out."

Red and white, I think, like the tacky blinking "Jesus Saves" sign near the school. I mark the spelling mistakes on Joey's paper and give him a "Very Good" and a smiley face sticker for his enthusiasm, then heave myself up from the couch to the kitchen pantry for a piece of peanut brittle, my reward for the day's work. I chomp down about a dollar's worth just before I dial Anneka's number on my old black telephone. Maybe she won't be home.

"Hello, Anneka is speaking." It's her Dutch accent, but not her voice.


"Yes, I said so."

"I didn't recognize you."

"I have been suffering a bronchitis, you see," she says. "That is why I'm announcing my name, I sound like a man."

"I'm so sorry you've been sick."

A pause. "Who is calling me, please?"

"This is Brenda," I say, "from the church."

"Oh, thank you for calling, Brenda." She pronounces my name with a wonderful rolling "r." "There is actually something I wish to discuss about the church. I am really not happy." I hear a teakettle whistling, she must be in her kitchen. "Can you hold, please, dear?" she says.

"Of course."

I put down my phone, run to the pantry and snap off another piece of candy from the flat, white box. I tell myself under no circumstances will I eat it while talking to Anneka. It will be my reward for making the call; this is a delicate spiritual mission I've been charged with, after all, and I owe it to this woman to be focused and receptive. I race back to the couch to pick up the receiver, praying, "Please, please," and, lo, she is just now picking up at her end. Catch my breath. Focus on the task at hand.

"Forgive me," she says. "My water was boiling, but now I have a nice cup of tea and we can settle in for our talk. Nobody calls me. How can people who claim to practice brotherly love fail to stay in touch with an elderly woman who lives in an isolation? This is actually one of the complaints I wish to register."

"Uh huh." I'm holding the speaking end of the receiver up high so I can jam the brittle into my mouth, my jaw powered by pistons.

"But now about you, my dear Brenda," she says. "Let us save the complaining for later, after we have bonded."

Is it a Dutch thing, or is she the most direct person on earth? I don't want to bond with her. Let them tell her she can't come to church. Let them incur her famous wrath. I despise this business. Trying to avoid the bits of peanut and sugar juice complicating my speech, I say, "It's a beautiful evening, isn't it? Did you notice the moon tonight?"

"Of course, but that is just the phenomenal world. Are you full of God?" Anneka asks. I decide to use a light touch.

"Gosh, aren't we all?"

"An amusing response," she says, "but hardly an answer." She grunts softly as she settles into a chair, then blows steadily on what I presume is her tea.

"I hope I'm...full of God," I say foolishly. Full of God. It sounds sexy, and I feel an absurd twinge of arousal. I hope she didn't hear it in my voice. I'm such a jerk.

"Of course you are full of him!" she cries. "As you said, 'aren't we all?' Pregnant with Spirit!" She breaks into hearty laughter and I join her so she won't feel alone. Then abruptly she says, "Don't ever doubt it."

"It's a good reminder," I say. "Thanks." All right, she's crazy, but this is more interesting than grading papers.

"You are very, very welcome, my dear Brenda," she says. She sips her tea noisily. "Now, which one are you? Are you the brown-haired alto in the choir?"

"Yes, that's me. That is I." I manage not to say, "I didn't always weigh this much."

"Ah. We have never talked. I don't know why."

Actually we have spoken, though I've always tried to avoid her. She told me at Coffee and Conversation two different times I reminded her of the brown-haired woman who sang alto in the choir.

"It's a pretty big chur—"

"Nevertheless," she says. "And how marvelous to use your lovely alto voice to sing his praises. Actually, I cannot sing in a choir as I am cursed with perfect pitch." She sighs. "So now I know you, and you know me, and as the introductory part of our conversation is over, we come to my complaints."

Post limits, counsels my professional self. I use what I consider to be a detached tone, but I'm clutching the receiver with both hands. "Please, let me know your main concern."

"They have crucified me!" she cries, and there follows a list of woes, insults she's been nursing for years: interrupting her in the chapel for practical matters during private prayers; failing to notify her of meetings or healing sessions; gossiping about her; leaving her to sit alone on the long pew; misspelling her name in the announcements when she donated "a great deal of money;" and the eight of them, the "eight so-called Christians who think they have the corner market on sanctity," they had the audacity to report her to the authorities when one Sunday, overcome with the Holy Spirit, she tore through the congregation sobbing and laughing, ripped off the altar cloth and held it up to catch the rainbow light coming through the rose window...

By now she's gasping for air. Panting.

I've begun to perspire. "I was told there was concern for your heart," I say. "Don't you have a history of heart problems, Anneka? And it was the paramedics, not the police, who—"

"I didn't say it was the police!" she says. "There is more than one kind of earthly authority! But for me there is ONE authority, and that is God! Don't you understand? Are there NINE of you now?" She muffles a hoarse cough and spits, into a hankie or a tissue, I hope.

Meanwhile, I don't know what to say. "Have you thought about Prozac" comes to mind, but it's flippant; and anyway they say she once fell in her garage, cutting her arm, and, after washing it in her urine, stitched up the wound herself with green thread. She's not the type to take the easy way out.

"Now you tell me." She's slurping her tea again and she sounds smug. "You tell me if there is not something tremendously rotten in Denmark."

"I've never had a problem with—" I begin. I might as well be quacking.

"Of course not, because no one tells the truth, because actually not one woman or man down there has the courage of the inner conviction."

This stops me. At this moment, there is no human on the planet with less conviction, inner or outer, than I. "Well... what should we be doing?"

"You are living in your own personal Dark Ages, ya? There is no 'we,' Brenda," she says. "There is only 'I.' 'I and the Lord God are One.'"

"I'm not sure —"

"Why did you call me?" she demands.

"I need to tell you something," I say.

"Then say it, please."

I try to swallow. "The others—"

"The others. The others want I should behave. Am I not correct?"

"They're concerned you might hurt ..."

"They want me to behave in such a way so they will be comfortable, as if their church were their home, as if they should command me in the same way they tell their children to come in to supper, or their dog to bring in the paper. I am not a dog! I am one who magnifies the Holy Spirit."

Here's what I think: Church is where, for one lousy day of the week, we are friendly, we make no demands, we are adults, who touch one another on the arm and say, How are you?

"Comfort," Anneka says. Her voice is acid. "If we are supposed to be comfortable in church, would we be sitting on rock-hard pews giving no consolation to the human body? The church is a place, actually, where we are commanded to be desperately uncomfortable, where we are obliged to wake up! We have a sleeping sickness! Yes or no, dear Brenda?" Out the window the moon, paler now, has lifted over the eucalyptus tree.

"I don't know what I think," I say. "I've been grading papers all day, and—"

"Ah, I see they have got to you. You are now one of them, an ordinary. A puppet woman." She sounds more surprised than angry, but my face is a sudden, hot mask. "I had thought in you to find an ally."

"Look, I want to be your friend, Anneka—"

"If I were your worst enemy," she says personably, "if I had shot your family dead, one by one, you know I am actually the only person in our church who deserves to stand at the altar of God, because I am the most sincere."

My jaw hangs open like an old pocket. My breathing has stopped. I have to admire this crazy old bat, she's the real deal, but my admiration is blended with revulsion. It's the mixed-up way I feel about the celebrities in People Magazine. I want to be them, I want to punish them. I want them to approve of me just as I am, and I want to be anybody but myself.

"Anyway, I do not need a friend," she continues. "What I need is an ally, to cut a swath for me so I can get back to my business with the Savior. Have you strength enough to be my ally, Brenda, yes or no?"

They would cast me out. I would have to go straight home after church every Sunday, without coffee or a sliver of cake or conversation. If I say the obvious thing, "Find yourself another church," she'll nail me as spineless and Godless, and she'll be right. But I don't want to be shunned by the only people who have treated me...not as the teacher, or the ex-wife, or the wise-cracking Weight-Watcher divorcee. Just as Brenda, slightly known but wholly acceptable. "Of course Brenda is single," they'd start saying, "she's got nothing to recommend her—and now look who she's taken up with. Turn your back, here she comes."

I start to tremble. "Anneka," I say, and choke.

"Don't worry, dear." Now her voice sounds like expensive hand cream, rich and soothing. "God will make a way for me, that is his specialty. Just as he parted the sea for Moses." So why do you need me? I want to shriek. Let God make your damn way!

"But He works through people, Brenda," she says, as if she's reading my mind. "Do you think he is going to do for me something as theatrical as he did for the Bringer of Law? No, he is going to give to some ordinary person the chance to make this right. And he gives me now, actually, the opportunity to offer it to you."

No, no, oh no. I'm not strong enough, my feet hurt, I work with kids.

"The others want you to convince me to quit coming to church, ya?"

"Ya," I whisper, on an inhale.

"And now, quite without meaning to, these poor hypocrites have engineered their own deliverance. Oh!" she hollers. "It's such a beautiful world, and such a perfect God!" And then, as casually as if a waiter has handed her a clean napkin, she says, "Thank you, Lord." After a while she blows her nose. I squeeze my eyes shut, hold my breath and wait. Then I hear her call my name, with that rolling "r." "Brenda."

"Yes?" I wait for another long moment.

"I miscarried a child many, many years ago. I think maybe dear God has sent you to me now, to fulfill her responsibilities as a daughter."

My eyes snap open and I see I've pulled the phone to the threshold of the kitchen, and that, tethered by the cord, I'm leaning at an acute angle toward the pantry. I need sweetness, I need to chew. But all of a sudden I weigh minus-zero and I'm looking down at myself from the ceiling: a fat, sweating woman straining for relief, stretching her phone cord to the snapping point. Look who I am! What if Anneka could see this? Or worse, He-She-or-It, the name I've often secretly applied to the Trinity. Is He-She-or-It watching me? Don't be ridiculous. It's not as if you get a mark on some eternal record for something as trivial as—Yes, you do: every single thing you do is your mark on your world, your mark on your short time. You are, in fact, your living mark. Was it a voice, or my own thoughts? As I ask the question, I'm returned to the threshold, to gravity; and the truth of those words fill me from the top of my head to my swollen feet. My whole life is the mark I make. It's awful, and it's magnificent.

There's nothing to say, but my throat unties itself, my spine stands me up straight and, as if I'm a ventriloquist's dummy, my mouth says, "I'm an event." I don't even know what it means, but Anneka seems to.

"Exactly." She's chuckling like a hen. "But you will never be lonely again. We have a lot of catching up to do, my dearest one."

"Gah," I say, pressing my forehead with the back of my arm.

"Now, I can trust you not to tell the others I will return to church next Sunday, ya? I shall slip into the pew next to you, quiet as a mouse, and then together we make an entering place for the angels of light and transformation! Hallelujah! Hallelu..." She starts to cough, high-pitched, painful-sounding barks, so loud I hold the receiver away from my ear and don't hear when the coughing turns into a dial tone.

Shaking, I hang up and regard the tangled cord, this skinny, spiraling little black tunnel that shoots, like a lasering whirlwind, terrible annunciations straight into the ear. Today a cord, tomorrow an angel? Then I think: to hell with it, all of it, I need a nap. I smash the phone down onto the dining room table and return to the pantry, where I snag the last scrap of candy, place it on my tongue, stalk back to the living room and fall into the couch, limp as old lettuce.

I dream it's night, and I am dogpaddling in a small, privately owned ocean, a land-locked salmon farm in the Midwest. I become aware of an approaching murkiness below me, a dreadful, shapeless thing, a tugging. I try to fill my lungs with air to stay afloat, but the water sucks me steadily downward, toward a giant squid spewing poison ink, reaching for me, flashing red. I begin to drown. I flail my arms and legs, but they give out, so I squeeze my palms together as hard as I can and all at once I'm pulled toward the surface like a caught fish, and when I reach the air, there's the full moon, spinning on its edge so fast, stars show, fuzzily, behind it. It's the whirling of the moon; it has reeled me upward.

Who saved me? I ask, voicelessly. Was it the Virgin Mary?

"No," whispers the smiley-face at the top of Joey's paper. "But she fixed the mechanism." I'm so surprised, I collapse into waves of something like laughter, and I'm rolling and diving in it when my own screeching voice awakens me. My eyes and cheeks are soaked with tears. Half an hour has passed.

On my tongue, like the lone survivor on a small island, sits a single peanut. I place it in my palm, turn it with my finger, amazed it didn't choke me. In the goofy fog of my post-dream state, I feel sorry for it. It doesn't seem right to crush it with my teeth, so I swallow it whole.