Sunday, June 8, 2008

Pearls and Roses -- chapter 2

Pearls and Roses, chapter 1

Trish was too upset by this interview to try to go on and accomplish the neighborhood errands she had mentioned. She drove towards home, sniffing back the tears – incredible, tears – alone in her car. She did not know who on earth to talk to about this. Of course she could telephone Pat, but they had been through this already, so much, and Trish felt she needed to tell this story fresh, to someone new. Besides, though a good friend, Pat was so much tougher than she was; she really did shrug Alice off. And it was not a Gallic shrug. It was just Pat, big and clanking and right, with tiny brown eyes like spearpoints in barbarian firelight that saw everything and had no doubts, and a big raspy laugh that laughed at everything. Trish could confide in her husband, but he already knew the story, too. He was the one who asked her to leave the computer and come to bed last night. And anyway men were so obtuse about women’s things. They didn’t seem to fight, ever, among themselves. They had no morals about delicate things, and didn’t care.

Trish wanted to speak to someone entirely new. As she waited at the stoplight to turn into her beautiful neighborhood – there was the splendid community center on its hill, where Miranda and Rory had art lessons and she and Dan saw Shakespeare in the theater-in-the-round every spring, and there was their huge church among the oaks, its roof sweeping up to a point like a pair of praying hands – it occurred to her that she would very much like to talk to Father Mike. Suddenly she wanted to talk to a professional with a key to the infinite, to kindness, who would understand petty problems, petty squabbles, and yet be upbeat, holy, and sympathetic about them. She wanted to try to understand the brutality of Alice, and why people are like that and why this was happening to her.

She made her turn when the light went green and then pulled up short right into the church’s parking lot, such an unaccustomed maneuver for her, especially on a Saturday, the day usually given to errands. It was an unaccustomed maneuver for the driver behind her too. He blared his horn at her angrily and then sped on. She became more upset and was astonished to feel herself sweating, she, normally so self-possessed. Perhaps she was being silly in coming here unannounced on a Saturday morning. Perhaps there was a mass going on and Father Mike was not available. What could a priest tell her, what did he know about the world? Maybe he had gone to visit his family for the New Year’s weekend and the place would be locked. In chagrin at her own indecision she almost gunned the engine and sped right on through the parking lot and out to the side street that led to her street by another way. But she remembered the delight and relief she had just felt half a minute before at the idea of confiding in a new person, an eternal person, and with some nervousness she parked the car after all, turned off the ignition, undid her seat belt, and got out. She felt a little giddy. Talking to a clergyman, just for her own reasons? Not to plan a wedding or a communion or something? Who was she trying to kid?

Luckily the glass doors to the foyer were unlocked and she passed in and found Father Mike simply sitting in the secretary’s office as if everything were quite ordinary. How foolish she felt. She was going to have to intrude upon this man’s day and burden him with some overwrought emotional problem, when perhaps he was merely thinking of watching football this afternoon, or expecting her to drop off a little check for the sharing parish and then be on her busy way again. She felt cruel and pointless, she normally so sure of her decency, she whose mother had enrolled her in years of etiquette lessons as a child. She had even learned how to get out of the back seat of a car while wearing a formal gown, and she still got out of her car that way, all the time.

Father looked up and smiled. He was typing on the computer. "Trish! Good morning. Happy New Year."
"Happy New Year, Father," she smiled weakly.
"How are you?"
She blew out a sigh. "Well, not good, actually."
His attention had been half with her but now was fully with her. He looked at her face. "Really, why is that?"
"Have you got a minute to talk? Are you busy?" Exactly what she had asked Alice on the phone. And look how that had turned out. She was frightened.
"Sure, I can talk." He closed out whatever he was doing on the machine and turned to her, complete attention at the ready. "Do you want to go in my office?"
"Oh no, let’s not bother," she answered as she loosened her coat and dropped her bag on the floor beside a chair. Alice was not worth the high seriousness of a priest’s office, with the crucifix and all the books. She sat down. "I won’t keep you only a minute."
"Keep me as long as you like. How is everything? Are the kids all right?"
"Oh, yes, yes, we’re all fine. Believe me, this is nothing serious. I just had this miserable experience this morning, and I want you – well, I want you to explain human nature to me, I guess!" She laughed, as she did so many times each day, that beautiful bell-like laugh which echoed against her straight square teeth and then seemed to double back and double-echo again, that laugh that reminded you of singing, that made you wonder if Trish sang professionally. Surprisingly, it was the one characteristic of hers whose effect she was unaware of.

"Explain human nature," he repeated, "all right, I’ll give you two minutes."
"Thank you so much," she laughed.
"So what happened this morning?"
"Oh, I had an altercation with this woman I work with. She’s extremely difficult, and I just want to know what to think." Father Mike nodded, and Trish went on. She first gathered her thoughts, swallowed, and then laid her small, plump hands, like the small paws of a gentle white dog, a Samoyed, gracefully on the desk in front of her.

"My company took a business trip to France a couple weeks ago. I work for Monique-Boyd, you know, it’s a foundation and a studio that films architectural restoration projects? We’re on public television sometimes."
"Of course, I’m familiar with it. Quite prestigious, isn’t it?"
"Well, rather prestigious, yes," Trish nodded. "And I’d like to keep it that way, as a matter of fact. Anyway we went, about ten of us, to film some work that’s being done on an old medieval abbey in France. Okay, so far so good. Well, this woman I’m talking about, she has had a bee in her bonnet for some time about the way the company operates, its expenses, its bylaws, all this picayune stuff that nobody has thought of in years. The company’s foundress, late foundress, hasn’t thought of it in years, we’re making money, we do wonderful work, we’ve heard through the grapevine that the Peabody Awards people may be interested in us, I mean - we’re doing fine."
"Okay, so back to France. We’re there for only a week, filming this highly important abbey restoration project that Frank – Mr. Boyd, the founder, had arranged for us to do years ago, and a couple things happen. Monique Boyd, Mrs. Boyd, died, so of course we’re pretty upset even though she was eighty – at least, I was upset – and then after I and a couple other staff had left Europe early to attend the wake back here, there’s this little party, on our last night, everybody’s last night there, in a little cafe in the town where we were staying. Where they were still staying. Okay? Do you follow me?" She put her hand on her heart. "I personally was gone."

"All right, so apparently this dinner party got out of hand. I don’t know. There was no reason it should have gotten ‘out of hand,’ whatever that means. We always arrange a little dinner out on the last night of all our field trips because – well, because we work hard and we want to attract good people to our staff and reward them, and it’s never caused a problem before. So there was this little party, something went wrong, two executive board members were not there to deal with this – I mean myself and my vice-president – and the person who does deal with it, she’s the treasurer, is this woman who I then dealt with this morning."

In fact Father Mike was having a hard time following this and Trish sensed she had not really reached him. It was so different with the women who knew the story. By this point in the narration, they were already mesmerized and, very probably, indignant.
"Okay," he said, squinting a little. "Are you sure you don’t need a lawyer instead of me?"

She smiled, again wearily. "No, although I know it sounds like that. No. What this woman did was to go, first of all, and apologize to the bar owner, in France, where things evidently went wrong, which is fine. She was the correct person to have done that and I salute her for it. But then she took it upon herself to write this incredibly nasty letter to the whole staff about how terrible we all are, and we do everything wrong, and we have to change, we personally, you know, like we’re not good enough? Because she thinks so? It was just unbelievable. And without a word of consultation with anyone, just – out it goes. I think she fancies herself way too intellectual for all us little nobodies, and I think she was just waiting for a chance to berate us all. You’re lucky if she speaks two words to you in a year, normally, and then there’s this. I mean she’s totally insufferable. I’m sorry, that’s not nice and it’s Christmastime, but that’s what I think." She paused and waited for him to speak.

"Well," Father Mike began, "all right. We can’t help our experiences. And what we learn from them. I suppose sometimes when our feelings are deeply engaged, we think we have to reach people, shake them up somehow."

Trish did not quite understand, at first, whom he was speaking about, but when she realized he meant Alice she had her opening and went on. "Oh, she succeeded. This shook me up. It shook everyone up. I was so hurt. And I just – I couldn’t let it go. And I have friends, my vice-president, who couldn’t let it go. Don’t you think it’s wrong to let a person just be mean like that? Don’t you think they have to be stood up to?"

He leaned back in the chair and looked out the window, puffing out his cheeks with breath. "Well ... if you’re talking about absolute injustice, yes."
"Well, to me, this was. You’re right. Absolute injustice. That’s a good way of putting it." Father Mike drew a breath to intervene but she rushed forward. "So, I went to this woman’s house this morning. I tried to talk to her. I called her first to ask if I could come. I tried to be positive. I brought her a little pamphlet which I made on the spot last night, on the computer, detailing all the history of the company, all the places we’ve been, our work, our awards, our growth. I tried to talk to her about people skills. And I didn’t even use that expression, so I wouldn’t offend her. To me, I don’t know where she was raised, but she is an absolute retard about people skills. I mean, no sympathy at all, just in her own world, totally cold. I felt she owed everyone an apology, and she refused it. I felt she should at least acknowledge she had made a mistake, even just to me, and she refused that. What kind of person doesn’t understand that when you do something wrong, when you hurt people, you apologize? What kind of person is like that?"

And with that, Trish had abruptly finished. Father Mike missed a beat while this sunk in.
After a moment of thought he said, "I suppose she simply doesn’t think she has hurt anyone."
"How could she not? That’s what I’m asking. How could you not know?" Trish’s nervousness had vanished and she was feeling better and better. She loved Father Mike.

"Motivation, intent, is a mysterious thing," he answered. "That’s why it’s taken into account both in terms of sin and in law, I believe. If she meant well, or at least meant no harm ...." He knew that he was approaching taking the other woman’s side and that Trish had not come here for that. She wanted counseling, and that does not always mean the truth, or even a search for truth.

"If her motivation was genuine meanness, however, then – I mean if she has not committed an actual crime and is not a threat to anyone, in which case you would need to contact other authorities – if she overreacted and her motive was meanness, then you have probably a damaged, unhappy character on your hands and I’m not sure what else there is to do except perhaps have pity and stay out of her way. There are always people in this world who are hurt and unhappy, you know. We see them all the time. That’s why the saying goes that the church is a hospital for the sick, not a choir for the anointed."

Trish looked grim. "Well. I don’t doubt she’s damaged and unhappy. My problem is just...I don’t know." She reached down for her bag.
"Can you avoid her?"
She speculated a minute, and then broke into her bell-like laugh. "Not as much as I need to. She’s, well, I suppose evil is too strong a word, but she’s so weird and tense and masculine and out of control." Trish had never before paused to analyze another person’s character, and the words that spilled out now struck her as alien and sophisticated at once. She was startled, yet impressed with herself. She went on.

"If I really wanted to avoid her, and I really think I may need to, I would have to quit my job. That’s what it amounts to and it infuriates me. I hate her having that kind of power. Over all of us. I’m sure I’m not the only one. That’s not right. That’s why I went to speak to her this morning. She cannot have that kind of power, to drive good people away and ruin something nice. Something functioning. It’s unjust."

"Well. I doubt she can actually ruin a corporation, a business, on her own authority. That’s another thing lawyers are for," he smiled. "To prevent that kind of thing, to – to protect ...." He looked at her, hedging, and then decided to take a chance. "Unless you think she has actually hit a nerve and has uncovered some issue that is vital. Could that be what hurts so much?" Trish shook her head.

"Even if she had," she answered quietly, "she’s so scary no one would listen to her. No one is listening to her now, so the story is already over. Whatever she wants to do is already impossible. That’s what’s so ironic. All she can do is be mean. No. All she’ll do is drive people away who were doing a good job and who have no reason to be bogged down in scary stuff that would prevent them doing a good job." Her bell-like laugh returned. "Prevent them solving any problems. It’s really twisted. No."

He remembered he was her pastor. "Did you get the impression you affected her at all? Was she open to criticism, constructive criticism I mean, was she reasonably pleasant? Human?"
"No. Absolutely not. She was horrible. I felt like I was in a dragon’s den. It was almost surreal, like talking to a robot. Her place was a mess, kids all over. I was crying in the car on the way here, afterwards. I don’t cry easily. That’s why I stopped in here." She paused. "Why are people like that?" she pleaded. "What do I do? I feel I have no purpose. That’s it. I couldn’t reach this woman, and I have to work with her, and all she can do is harm. I feel I have no purpose."

Father Mike was looking at her with his face propped up on his knuckles. "It’s a quandary," he said, typically. "Would it help if I talked to her?"
"She would never come near you," Trish said, inwardly surprised at how quickly this answer had surged into her. "She would never come near anyone who offered help. And I wouldn’t even want you to have to meet her. There’s no need to burden you with that." Father Mike was on the point of making another suggestion when Trish sighed and continued, "Well, okay. You’re right. She is a damaged character and the answer for the moment is just to stay out of her way. I mean who knows, maybe she’ll quit."
He laughed. "That’s possible."
"That would be a godsend. Can you pray for that, or is that, like, rude or something?" And she laughed.
"I don’t know if we should pray for other people to act a certain way, to do a specific thing." ("For our benefit," he almost added, but did not.) "You can certainly pray for strength and wisdom to solve your problems, or to cope with problems that are insoluble. You know, like the Serenity prayer?"
She nodded, sniffing. "I know it. It’s beautiful."
"I’m sure God understands the heart, even when we’re not feeling sacred and angelic. Especially then. You could even pray for her."
"Oh, no." Trish looked up quickly, and they both laughed. "No, I’m not ready for that yet."
"Okay. Well, this helped. Thank you for letting me vent for a while." Trish rose, smiled rather tightly, shook hands with him, and left.

Pearls and Roses -- Chapter 3

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