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Ms. Barrett and Father Faulk
Not to be lonely, not to look back with regret, not to miss anything, always to be awake and aware. And to paint. Beautifully.
Natasha Barrett had written this in her journal when she was seventeen.
Favorite watercolorists: Sargent and Gramatky. Favorite sculptors: Bernini, Donatello. Favorite book: The Age of Innocence by Edith Wharton. Favorite music: rock, particularly Men at Work, the Police, Dylan; and also for music: jazz, especially Chet Baker and Billie Holiday. Biggest fear: rejection. Biggest ambition: to travel and to know the world by heart.
Seventeen. And she had come upon it this past winter, years away. You could be a little proud, looking back. You could even find some comfort in the recollection.
In early April of the year she was to turn thirty-two, what she thought of as the chastened later version of that young woman attended a fund-raising dinner hosted by her employer, Senator Tom Norland of Mississippi, at his mansion in Arlington. The mansion was on a high bluff overlooking the Potomac River, and from the road it was just visible at its roofline after you crossed into Virginia—an immense redbrick Colonial. She had visited several times before, and there was always something warm and welcoming about it in spite of its imposing size. Behind the house was a flagstone patio, and walking paths wound through the tall oaks that stood at the edge of the bluff above the river. Along the paths, iron benches were placed decorously amid flower beds and statuary. People would gather in this wide shady space when the senator was entertaining guests.
This evening she arrived late and was greeted by Norland’s tall pretty wife, Greta. “Come right in, darling.” Greta smiled her white smile and then frowned. “Are you all right? You look a bit downhearted.”
“Oh, no, I’m fine,” Natasha said. “Just tired.”
“Well, good to see you, honey. Go right through.”
The younger woman reflected that there were people for whom cheerfulness was a trait, something they were blessed with like good bone structure and silky blond hair. She went along the polished hardwood floor of the hall and stepped out onto the patio. Cocktails and wine were being served to the left of the entrance, a young dark man standing behind a table there. Natasha asked for red wine, and his gaze went over her. She could have imagined this.
Moving away from the crowd and out onto the lawn, she walked among the statues—small, delicate-looking angelic figures in supplicating poses. Please, they all seemed to be saying.
The winter had been long, colored by the aftermath of the end of an affair. She was in no mood for a party and had wanted very badly to find an excuse not to come. But it was Friday, still part of the workweek, and her presence was required: the gathering was for the benefit of the Human Relations Conference, one of the senator’s pet projects. She was his chief organizer.
Wandering back to the patio, she stood sipping her glass of wine, surrounded by people whose evident curiosity about the senator’s “assistant”—two people actually referred to her that way—made her irritable and cross. She wasn’t there five minutes before she found herself desiring with adolescent fervor to disappear into the rooms of the house. She kept forcing a smile, listening politely to what was said to her. The guests, many of them local celebrities, were talking about the upcoming conference and about politics—the new president’s withdrawal from the Kyoto Protocol on global warming. It was a signal, someone said, about where things were headed with the Republicans back in power. Others speculated about all that. Someone else remarked on the perfect weather, trying to change the subject. To Natasha it all began to seem depressingly automatic, like the chatter of birds on a shoreline. Species noise.
The weather was indeed fine: clear and cool, breezes stirring like whispered secrets in the leaves of the oaks bordering the property, the new leaves gold daubed with sun, nearly translucent. The gravel and flagstone walks skirting the edge of the bluff afforded a lovely view of the dark green river far below, with its ranks of sculling boats from Georgetown. The air was flower scented.
Norland approached through the confusion of others, grasping the upper arm of a man who seemed reluctant to be handled in that way. She saw that the man wore a clerical collar. “Natasha,” Norland said. “You grew up in Memphis.”
The senator had a gift for tautology.
She nodded and smiled at him.
“I’d like you to meet Father Michael Faulk, pastor of Grace Episcopal Church in Memphis, Tennessee.”
Father Faulk was tall, solid looking, bulky through the shoulders. She saw his dark brown eyes and, when they shook hands, felt the roughness of his palm.
“Actually, I grew up in Collierville,” she said to him.
“Collierville. I don’t get out that way much.”
“In Memphis people decide not to go somewhere if it’s more than five minutes away. I had Memphis friends who would talk about Collierville as if it was Knoxville, four hundred miles down the road instead of fifteen.”
“You say you had Memphis friends.” His black hair was receding. He looked to be in his late forties or early fifties.
She said, “Former friends, yes.”
“I won’t ask.”
“They all moved to other cities?” she said in the tone of someone speculating.
“I’m still not asking.”
They talked a little about Graceland and other attractions. It was the usual informal kindness of social occasions. She did not feel up to it.
“I’ve never really thought about the distance to Collierville,” he went on. “Is it fifteen miles?”
“Fifteen miles from Beale Street to where I lived growing up.” She turned to acknowledge the greeting of a coworker, Janice Layne, who was the senator’s press secretary. Father Faulk moved off, having been pulled in another direction by one of the donors to the event—and perhaps having sensed her reluctance to chat. Janice frowned slightly. “Mmm. Who’s the one in the pretty collar?” That was Janice, boy crazy by her own account, and probably, secretly, nothing of the kind. Natasha had an indulgent sense of knowing affection for her.
“I’ve just been introduced. You don’t know him?”
“He does look a little familiar. And he’s hot. And Episcopal. I already got that much. And so if he’s single, he’s fair game. I’ll find out for us.”
“Go, girl,” Natasha said automatically. She was already beginning to forget him.
But they got seated next to each other at the dinner, and he turned a charmingly sidelong smile her way, talking about how he could never get used to the grandeur of places such as this—with its atrium and its wide entrances and the original Rembrandt on the wall in the next room. He had been raised in Biloxi, in a decidedly middle-class environment, though his mother, just after he turned seventeen, was the recipient of a large inheritance from a great-uncle who had made a lot of money building houses. “Most of my boyhood,” he said, “was spent so far from this. Anyway, I don’t think I’ll ever get used to it.”
The humor in his face and the rich timbre of his voice brought her out of herself. He asked, through the smile, if she liked Washington. “I do,” she told him. “Mostly.”
“Exactly how I feel about Memphis.”
“How long have you been there?”
“A long time, now. I went north out of high school. College in Boston—not Harvard.” The smile widened. “Went to seminary in Saint Louis, and then down to Memphis.”
“Your family still in Biloxi?”
“My mother died three years ago,” he said. “My father lives in Little Rock. I have an aunt here in Washington.”
She leaned toward him and murmured, “The, um, senator’s press secretary wants to know if you’re married.”
He looked down the table toward Senator Norland and Janice Layne. “You mean Ms. Layne.”
“The very lady.”
He grinned. “Divorced.”
“I’m sorry. But she’ll be glad to hear it.”
This occasioned a pause, and they watched the others talking and sipping their wine. She thought she might have stepped over some line. He was gazing at the room, evidently far away now, hands folded at his chin.
She said, “Did you like Biloxi?”
And he seemed to come to himself. “I did. Very much. Yes.”
“How about you?” he asked. “Does the senator’s press secretary want to know if you’re married?”
“Janice was just curious,” Natasha told him.
“I was joking.”
“She was, too—a little.”
He grinned. “Actually, my former wife is getting remarried. It’s happening in the next couple of days.”
“How’s that make you feel?”
“It’s—as we say—in everyone’s best interest.”
Natasha nodded, unexpectedly on edge now. She thought of excusing herself. But there wasn’t anywhere to go in this place without being seen leaving. She watched the senator talking to a big florid man about Virginia horse country and drank down her wine. It left an almost-syrupy aftertaste.
“I never feel comfortable at this kind of gathering.” Father Faulk spoke softly, only to her.
“I can’t help seeing it all as a series of gestures,” she said. “Makes me feel judgmental.”
“Not us. We’re too cool.”
It was pleasurable to be included in that way, even jokingly.
“Want to talk about Collierville?” he asked.
“Do you like bluegrass?”
“Don’t know much about it, but I like it.”
She described summer evenings when people would gather in the charming old town center to play music.
“I have seen that,” he said. “Wonderful. I like the antiques shops, too, and the old train station museum. I should go out there more often.”
“I guess it’s different if a person lives there.”
“You couldn’t wait to get away.”
“No,” she said. “Not really. It was just—you know—it was home.”
He had a pleasing weathered look. Realizing her own growing interest in him, she experienced a surprising stir of anticipation. It had been months since she had felt much of anything but weariness. She sipped the ice water before her, and her hand shook a little when she set the glass down. She wanted more wine. He was talking across the table about the Rembrandt to a narrow-faced middle-aged woman who had spectacles hanging from a little chain around her neck and deep lines on either side of her mouth. “I joked about all the little age cracks in the original painting,” he told her, “you know, going on about them to this fellow who—doesn’t seem to be here now. Hope I didn’t frighten him away. I told him that I have one just like it that has no cracks at all in it and that I bought it at Walgreens for less than five dollars. He was not amused. I’m pretty sure he thought I was serious.”
The woman across the table was not amused, either.
“Forgive me,” Natasha said to her. “I didn’t get your name.”
“I’m Mrs. Grozier. My husband is on the board.”
“Oh, yes, Mrs. Grozier. I’ve worked with your husband.”
Mrs. Grozier nodded civilly and then turned her attention to the other end of the table.
Father Faulk turned to Natasha and said, low, “I keep thinking it was funny about the Rembrandt.”
She smiled. It was as though the two of them were in cahoots, looking at all the others. She felt herself calming down. She saw warmth in his eyes, a sort of reassurance radiating from them.
“What about you,” he said. “You still have family in Memphis?”
“My grandmother. She’s responsible for my having this job. She worked in the mayor’s office in Memphis for years, and she knew a lady who came here to work for the senator.”
“Is the lady still working for him?”
“Retired a couple of years ago and moved to California. Somewhere near L.A. I didn’t know her very well.”
“And your grandmother? Do you still go to Collierville to visit her?”
“We moved into the city the year before I left home. A little house in the High Point district. I visit her there, of course.”
“I know a woman in High Point who used to work in the mayor’s office. Iris Mara.”
This gave her a pleasurable little jolt. “That’s my grandmother.”
“I worked with her on a project to make books available to schoolkids in some of the poorer neighborhoods. Iris Mara from the mayor’s office. Retired. Right?”
“Yes. All that—but she never mentioned a project.”
“She comes to my church now,” the priest said.
“Church?” Natasha said. “Iris?”
Grinning, he said, “Hmm.” Then: “Yes. The very lady.”
“We talked on the phone two days ago. We talk a couple of times a week. She’s never said anything about going to church.”
He was silent.
“Well. I’ve been away so much since I left for college.”
At the head of the table, the senator stood and clinked the end of a fork against his wineglass until the room grew silent. He thanked everyone for attending and introduced some of the principal organizers of the event. He congratulated Natasha for her work on the project. Then he sat down, acknowledging the polite round of applause.
Faulk turned to her and said, “I didn’t know you were so important.”
“Hmm,” she said. “Sarcasm in a priest.”
His face betrayed no sign of amusement. “I wasn’t being sarcastic. Honestly.”
After a pause, he said, “So Iris didn’t mention going to church.” And they both laughed. There was something so incongruously familiar about the remark. His soft baritone voice when he laughed rose wonderfully to another register.
He held up his water glass and offered it, as for a toast. She lifted hers, and they touched them and drank.
“I’m probably slandering her by my reaction,” Natasha said. “But she’s always been so secular.”
“She’s been coming for several months now.”
“You notice when someone starts coming to your church?”
He gave forth another little laugh. “In her case, yes. She came to see me first.”
“It’s so strange—Iris going to church. She never went to any church. We never went to any church. As far as I know, my parents never did either.”
“You say as far as you know.”
“They died when I was three. I never knew them.”
“Oh, Lord—forgive me,” he said. “Of course. I should’ve remembered—I knew that Iris lost her daughter and son-in-law.”
“And Iris just goes on through the days being Iris.”
“She’s a brave lady.”
“I can’t wait to talk to her about you,” Natasha said. “And church. I’ll spring it on her. Be fun to hear her reaction.”
“Please don’t tell her I’m as stupid as I must have seemed just now.”