A Kind of Mercy
She flung herself at the church like the worst of fanatics. The gilt-edged pages in the Bible her parents had given her when she was ten, already fragile, wore thin. Some afternoons she turned to the maps of Judea and stared into the pale blue of the sea, the pale green of the land, as if a revelation were at hand.
But the only revelation was more grief. She tried to understand the widows in the support group she’d attended early on, the ones who said they felt guilty confessing it, but now that their husbands were gone, they felt free. Liberated as they never had been, even when they joined the movement when they were young. Free! Free! one of them had cried, as if they were all nineteen again, braless on one college campus or another, defying tradition as they chanted their creed.
Fanatics of another order.
She herself was probably a dying breed, a widow who missed her dead husband, Harold, so much that some days getting out of bed was all she could manage. Or at least that was so before she flung herself at the church, months after quitting the support group. She attended Mass every morning. She carried her rosary wherever she went. Sometimes, leaving the grocery store or bank, she had to say the rosary just to be able to put the car in gear and move on.
The children, themselves long since flung into other lives, called in the apparent rotation they’d arranged, Deborah on Sunday, the older son, Allen, on Wednesday, and the younger, Brian, on Saturday morning. Brian had come out to her on the eve of his father’s funeral. He’d been waiting too long as it was, he said, and he’d held off because what if disappointment had sapped his father of the energy needed to fight the cancer? I really don’t care who it is that you love, she told him once she recovered from her amazement that he’d chosen this moment to announce what she and Harold had known for years. I can’t seem to care about anything. So although the children were probably appalled by her fervent interest the church, they no doubt saw it for the godsend it was: God taking her off their hands, as it were.
She didn’t believe in church doctrine. She didn’t know if she believed in God, but she was interested in the many ways people went about explaining God’s mercy in the face of evidence so staggeringly to the contrary that it stopped your breath. Put on one side the Holocaust; on the other, God’s mercy. The scale was decidedly tipped, and not in God’s favor.
This was the sort of thing Harold would have scorned. The fool’s pursuit of the unknowable, he would have called it. Had called it, the few times she’d suggested they try going to church again. They’d left the church when Brian was barely out of diapers because the priest had mixed politics into his sermon, siding with the government whose policies at the time Harold abhorred. As soon as they were outside in the balmy Florida air, Harold strode down the sidewalk, calling back to her and the children, That’s the end of that. The children began to cry, dramatically, thinking they weren’t, after all, going to get any ice cream, the promise of which always kept them quiet as saints.
All so long ago now. But how she had missed the church, the statues, the ritual, the long murmur of prayer. How she loved, now, to go when no one else was there. As soon she stepped inside the vaulted interior, she felt purified, as if she’d become the nun she had dreamed as a girl of being, ready for any sacrifice or privation that would prove her worthy of God’s mercy. For more than an hour, sometimes, she sat in the quiet and believed such mercy would befall her. Then she walked back outside into the loss that came with every breath.
Rita and Leonard never married, so, after Leonard died, his children left Rita out of his obituary even though he and their mother, Sarah, had been divorced for ten years. Sarah no doubt dictated the obituary, Rita decided: more revenge. Before Leonard’s death, his son sometimes called and spoke to Rita, briefly, if she answered, but the daughter refused to have anything to do with her. If the daughter called and Rita answered, the daughter hit the red hang-up button.
The rupture with Sarah had tormented Leonard. Night after night for years, Rita heard about her, her beauty, her skill at entertaining, one night making dinner for thirty guests and still looking as radiant as ever. Many nights Rita wanted to cry out, Why did you divorce her, then? But she knew he needed to work his way through the grief he had brought upon himself. It was a choice between grief and suffocation, he told her. An either/or situation that was no fallacy: either he stayed with Sarah and suffocated, or he left her and grieved. He knew what would happen with the children, how his daughter would spurn him, how his son would want to spurn him but weaken each time he thought he’d found the strength to do so, but never weaken enough for it to matter, which is to say for there to be anything but cooling between them.
Rita had children of her own, two daughters, grown, like Leonard’s, all of them in their early twenties. Rita’s younger daughter said Leonard’s daughter wasn’t hostile; she was just processing the rupture. Processing. The words the young used, as if everyone were no more than data. Her older daughter said Leonard’s whole family was a pack of over-privileged snobs, and why was Rita even attracted to him.
So here she was, barely fifty, technically not a widow but widowed in her heart, Rita said to anyone who would listen. At night she sat alone in the house, thinking of all Leonard would tell her if he were still there with her at the glass table that bore the marks of his other life—scratches his children had made when they were young; an interrupted shatter, as if a bullet had hit the table but not pierced it, from the night Sarah stabbed the glass with the handle of her heavy silver dinner knife, saying (he’d told her this one at least a dozen times), This is your heart.
Rita rubbed her fingers over the wounded glass. One wound led to another. What did it matter now if he had loved Sarah more than he had ever loved her? The real and metaphysical were bound in ways too complicated to unravel. He was gone but here. I’m yours, he had said so many times, as he must have said to Sarah.
She looked out the window at the coast live oaks, old tricksters who shed leaves every day yet remained green. Every living thing was self-involved, busy processing.
I was never yours. No one is anyone else’s, she said aloud, her voice a shock to the emptiness. But not for long. Soon she was telling him how hard it had been, listening to him talk about his ex night after night, how long it would take her to process, yes, process, what seemed to her now—she thought again of the obituary, her unacknowledged existence—her own death, in parallel with Leonard’s, a protracted, excruciating death in which she had been so complicit.
She took to riding one bus after another. Often she was surprised when someone offered her a seat, and then she remembered: she was an old woman. She had methods of looking at herself in the mirror that kept her from being too aware of this. She sucked in her cheeks, she tilted her head, and, thanks to her dyed hair, she could pass for a decade younger. Of course, it would be ridiculous to play such tricks in public, but sometimes on the bus she did: she sucked in her cheeks, she titled her head, and she imagined that anyone looking would think she’d had face work, given that she didn’t look as old as her hands betrayed, with their lumpy veins and liver stains.
Sometimes she got off the bus at random stops and walked a bit and came back to the bus stop and waited for the next bus. On weekends, when the intervals between buses lengthened and sometimes almost doubled, she stopped at a café and ordered tea she took only a few sips of, afraid a fierce need to urinate would strike while she was on the bus, in between stops. Or she rode to the end of the line and waited without getting off for the bus to start up again.
Most days she pretended Henry would be at home, reading, when she came in with the few groceries needed for dinner. She would tell him about her day, all the dramas she’d witnessed on the bus. For example this American couple on the 24 with four young children that she was watching right now, three boys and a girl, the oldest boy not more than six or seven, the youngest in a pack on his father’s back, eating an apple in such big bites she was afraid he would choke, and then what would she do? Because although she herself was American, she didn’t like to let on; she loved being mistaken for a French woman, one of the reasons she never spoke to the person beside her, or, if necessity demanded spoke in only the briefest of phrases so the unshakable American accent would go undetected.
If the boy’s face got any redder and he stopped breathing she would have to cry out He’s choking! But just then his father reached for the apple and that was that. The mother told the little girl that they would be in France for Christmas, and the girl asked would there be France presents then, and the mother said yes, France presents, and she wondered aloud where they would find a tree. No doubt there would be a France baby under the France tree and another France baby on the way before they went back to America. At least they were feeding the children bread and apples and water, not the packaged junk and soda that made Americans so fat.
Henry would interrupt her somewhere in the middle of this and say, Edith, get to the point. Or if there is no point, stop.
How delicious that she could keep going, now, as long as she liked.
Instantly she felt stricken with remorse. That she could rejoice even momentarily!
By now she had a kind of prayer to address to Henry, a variation on the Confiteor: Bless me, Henry, for I’ve done it again. Not that Henry would mind. Henry interrupted her and told her she was boring him and five minutes later, it was as if he’d never said anything at all. But she went on nursing her grievances like the children they’d never had. A horde of children by now, worse than the American couple.
Her favorite bus was the 63 that took her to the 16th, where people with money lived in buildings mostly empty in summer, their windows protected by aluminum shutters, so that the buildings seemed to be recovering from black eyes. Don’t exaggerate, Henry said.
But why not? Who was there to stop her? She would be silent enough when she joined the dead. Or stepped onto the next bus, for that matter.