Hance was glad when he didn’t see Emmy among the crowd gathering in the pews of Renato’s church the night of the concert. Her absence implied that she at last realized her plan was unrealistic; she had cast aside her fixation.
Celeste Warren, who had helped set up the orchestra’s music stands before the musicians went out on the floor, caught him peeking through the door.
“Nice tux, John,” she quipped, gesturing to the black suit with the Roman collar. “You should wear black more often. You look like a rock star.”
He still smarted from the “You’re young and you’ve got hair” remark with which she had forced Emmy upon him as a voice student. The look he granted her for this one said, “Thanks, but no more of that, eh?”
She smacked him lightly on the arm with a roll of sheet music. “Lighten up. It’s a Christmas party, not a funeral.”
“Yes, Cel,” he grumbled, but Celeste was smiling.
Though conscious of the work at hand, Hance during the performance was disappointed that Emmy wasn’t there. For all her delusions, she was the kind of person who should have been there: the kind who had a heart, not a self-serving reason to be in the public eye. Most of the audience, he knew, lived in houses the size of small department stores, bought more of what they wanted than what they needed, and supported causes and events because it made them look good, not because they cared about the recipients of their funds. From the rousing opener, “Happy Solomon,” from Handel’s oratorio Solomon, through the Mozart c minor Mass, to the medley of Christmas carols at the end, they gave his musicians ovations that signified they didn’t care if a soloist sang off-key or if the execution of some instrumental passages was not as precise as it should have been. They were there for one reason: to be seen doing something that was nice to be seen doing.
But they were not the only audience. There was another, a group of listeners who gathered beneath the windows, listening to the music that reached them through the panes of leaded stained glass. They were the people for whom the party was being held. And they were not allowed to go inside. Hance saw them as he stood at the door, thanking the paying crowd for coming out on a winter’s night. It was a lovely night, too. Dry. Crisp. Seasoned with flurries that sometimes grew into a teasing, more-earnest snow shower.
Shadowy clumps were moving into the woods behind the church. Several of the clumps broke away, waving their arms toward Hance.
“That was beautiful, man!”
“God bless you!”
“This is the best Christmas ever!”
Drunk, on drugs or demented, Hance thought as the men melted into the woods.
A girl the cut and coloring of Emmy Kydd straggled behind, carrying a small child and leading three more at her side. Was it really Emmy?
Hance excused himself from the receiving line and strode after her. She turned around before he spoke. “Come on! We’re having a party.”
“Where else? In the camp!”
Why was he wary? He had just given a concert for the people she so ingenuously wanted to help. How could he refuse to go? He motioned behind him. “My coat—”
“You won’t need your coat. You’ll see.” Like censer smoke curling into the ceiling, she slipped into the woods.
Hance stepped lively to keep up with her, knowing he needed his coat and probably wouldn’t find her if he went back for it. “What are these children still doing here? I thought social services would have taken them away by now.”
“They don’t stay in the woods at night, if that’s what you’re thinking. They sleep in the rectory.”
“Where are they during the day?
“In the rectory. Volunteers from the church mind them. I mind them, too. And I teach them.”
“Even the ones who don’t speak English?”
“There’s always someone around to translate. Besides, most of them already know some English. They’re teaching me Spanish. And Creole.”
Hance was about to ask her, in French, if she spoke French. But if she knew he was fluent in French, she might try to persuade him to help her teach the Creole speakers.
The camp was a haggard layout of sheets and tarps thrown over shrubs, branches, construction refuse. Hamburgers seethed on a propane grill tended by a bloated hooded parka with fingerless mittens.
“Some of the people here work for restaurants,” Emmy said, as if guessing Hance was wondering where people who had nothing could have appropriated raw ground beef. “I think it’s old meat. But it’s okay. If it was bad, they wouldn’t be cooking it.”
She didn’t seem to consider that cooked meat really could be bad, but Hance decided not to press the point. Emmy was confident, and he wouldn’t have let the stuff pass between his own lips, anyway.
Still, the sight of that bloated parka and its occupant, whose gender could not be discerned, and the camp’s overall sense of deprivation and dilapidation made him queasy. Why did he come here? Was it because of Emmy, or was it because he wanted more people to thank him for the concert, and to tell him how beautiful the music was?
People who had attended the concert were already calling for him to sit on one of the low metal folding chairs that had been set around an oil barrel brimming with flaming branches and paper refuse. As Emmy had promised, he didn’t need his overcoat; he’d have been too warm. Sit any closer, and the air from the homemade conflagration would have seared his face.
Some of the homeless were American; some, Hispanic and Haitian. Hance made small talk with those who spoke English and smiled a lot with those who did not. He was almost grateful that not everyone was fascinated by him: A couple of young women who seemed to have no interest in him sat on the other side of the barrel, painting their nails from the same bottle of polish. Funny, how women could still be enslaved to fashion despite their poverty, when money was better spent on food, fuel, clothing.
True, they were sharing a bottle, and that bottle must have been bought, if not lifted, from the kind of store that charged only a dollar or less for merchandise that was old or expired or made of substances that escaped regulation by the proper agencies. But why were they bothering? To make themselves pretty? Why would they want to make themselves pretty? To flirt with the men? To find a mate? What kind of a mate could they find out in the woods, in a makeshift camp inhabited by makeshift people?
Did it matter? People were really animals—mammals with teats for suckling, nails for clawing, toes for climbing, and openings through which offspring were made and born. Their physical attributes meant they were created for doing what all animals do: run around naked, copulating at whim. No woman needed glitter to enhance what happened in the region below her waist. A woman’s beauty lay on the inside. Not “inside” as in sweet or noble sentiments, but actually within her body: in the silky, wet, hot passage between her legs. In the ability to sustain the force of a man’s repeated, rabid incursions into that passage. In the desire to withstand the explosions that marked the end of those incursions. Paint was color on a surface. No body ever shivered in ecstasy over a facade.
The arrival of the hamburgers dampened the speed of the conversation around him, but not the good intentions behind it. Nobody took offense as Hance politely refused the meat; he was instead offered hot chocolate, and cupcakes that must have been donated to a food pantry because they were too old to serve at a local eatery or were too old to sell at the supermarket. The children sang Christmas carols in Spanish as well as English.
One of the children who had been dancing around Emmy on the way into the woods, a boy of perhaps nine, held a guinea pig out to Hance, and Hance, not knowing what else to do, took the little animal between his hands. As soon as he touched it, the guinea pig started squealing, squirming, and kicking its little legs. The boy gasped and scolded the pet, but Hance, saying, “No, no, no, it’s all right,” presumed the pet sensed what he was and his former penchant for benefiting from the blood of small mammals. He held the rodent out to the boy, thinking to give it back, but it was Emmy who took it, and held it to her chest, and stroked the top of its head.
“Be nice to Father John; he doesn’t have any pets,” she said, and once again the animal was placed in the guest of honor’s hands. This time, however, the guinea pig made no fuss. Hance followed Emmy’s directions and held it against his shoulder as if he were holding an infant. Emmy scritched its head. Its legs straightened; it started to purr. She backed away, telling Hance, “Pet him! He won’t bite.”
So she thinks I’m afraid of animals? Perhaps she doesn’t know about me, after all.
He did as commanded. (Why was it so easy to do as she commanded?) The purring continued.
Tired by a long day of teaching that ended with conducting a full-length concert, Hance stopped analyzing his surroundings and gave in to the benign heat of the fire and the contented creature at his shoulder. The goings-on, he perceived, were the stuff of happy gatherings among people everywhere. Food was cooked and consumed. Children played and were corrected when they became too raucous. Adults kidded each other, counseled each other, consoled each other.
Amid it all, Hance experienced something he had always decried as a device found only in fiction: an epiphany. It occurred to him, without searching, that the homeless lived every day knowing they were reviled and that someone wanted to punish them and make them suffer for what they were, as he too had been punished and reviled and made to suffer for what he himself was.
But the homeless didn’t reject or revile him, just as Renato, Evarista, and Celeste Warren didn’t reject or revile him. They accepted him as a dog accepts its master. They looked to him for help. And who did he himself look to for help? Nobody. He wanted no help. No man or woman could help him. To help him, people would have to know the truth about him. He was in no position to be helped. That too was part of the punishment.
Why? If people, who the Catechism stated were made in God’s image, could treat him as one of their own, why, then, couldn’t the representatives of God on earth? Weren’t they too made in God’s image? Or had they come to love and honor their own images, as false as the things the Israelites had worshiped in the desert during the Exodus? What could Emmy and Cel and Renato and all the people in the camp that night see that the Vatican could not? Or were they all as damned as he, and knew they could never attain the peace, the happiness, the perfection of soul they all desired?
A blast of childish giggles slapped open his eyes.
The guinea pig’s owner was pointing at him, saying something excitedly to a woman Hance presumed was the boy’s mother.
“He says the guinea pig has put a spell on you,” said Renato, who was standing over him with his overcoat.
It took Hance a moment to understand that he’d been so lost in thoughts and fatigue that he never heard Renato join the party. He’d never noticed himself nodding off, either. But he couldn’t have been that far gone: he was still holding the guinea pig; its hind legs were still stretched down his chest. He gave the animal to the boy, who swept it to his own shoulder, smiling broadly. “Guess I should go. I’ve got classes in the morning.”
The campers were sorry to see him leave so early. He thanked them for their hospitality, and they again thanked him for the concert.
With no trace of shyness, Emmy asked him if he’d be driving by the college.
His home at the rectory was two towns over, but she didn’t have to know. “Do you need a ride back?”
“Would that be okay?”
He pulled the keys from the inner pocket of his overcoat. “Come on.”
She said nothing until they were underway, and the woeful little vehicle clanked along the sleepy streets. “Funny, isn’t it? Here people live in families, with roofs over their heads and heat within their walls. But it’s so dark and empty. It’s the people back in the camp, the people who have nothing, who are spending the night amid light and music and each other. You’d think the people in these houses would want to stay awake and enjoy what they have. I wonder: are they sleeping, or are they huddling in fear, hiding from something they don’t understand and that they couldn’t name even if they knew what it was?”
Uncertainty over what she knew about him wormed its way through Hance’s psyche on a string of nausea. “What do you think?”
“I think they’re frightened.” Emmy replied right away. “They don’t want to lose everything they have. They don’t want to become the people in the camp.”
She should know. She herself had had a home. She herself had lost everything. But did she consider herself among the people of that camp? From the corner of his eye, Hance could tell she was looking out the passenger window, pensive yet undefeated. “Did you ever speak to Mother Evarista about setting up a school?”
“I’d like to start a school, but after speaking with you, I thought maybe it’s not the time. I’ll do what I’m doing at Father Renato’s church. Something will come of it. I know. Just as I knew someone would give me a ride home tonight.”
“It was an educated calculation. You knew people from the college were going to be there. Why didn’t you get a ride back with one of the sisters?”
“They were gone before I could ask.”
“Why didn’t you make plans with any of them before this evening?”
The answer was a sigh and a glum confession: “I’m stupid, you know.”
Did she want him to say she was too clever to be stupid? He was too weary to indulge false modesty. He reminded her, instead, that all good teachers had a streak of stupidity. Instead of dwelling upon it, they strove to learn as much as they could and become better teachers.
She embellished yet another sigh with words. “I’ll be learning until the end of the world.”
“That’s how it is with teachers. All of them. Even me.”
He felt the long look upon him. “You’re not saying that to make me feel better?”
“Lying is unethical. For professors . . .for priests . . . for anyone, really.”
Emmy was silent but far from still. Something was going on. She thought she was hiding it, but she wasn’t. He could tell. He could always tell. But he could never guess the cause. Was it something about him? Something about herself? Should he ask? No. Not while he was driving. The last thing he needed was to cause an accident and be found with a young student in his car. Better to wait until he pulled into the convent’s driveway.
He realized he’d lost his chance to say anything when Emmy opened the door before the car came to a complete stop. “You went out of the way to bring me home. I’m sorry. But I’m grateful. Strange, isn’t it, how we can be sorry and thankful at the same time? Is there a name for that sort of feeling?”
“I don’t know,” Hance said, wondering if this is what Emmy had been ruminating about.
“If there isn’t, then we’ve got to invent one. G’night!”
A car that had passed them as they approached the convent came up behind them. Hance, finding the timing curious, opened the door and half stepped out. The car screeched to a stop, and out came Ev and Sister Margaret. They both dashed to Emmy, whose face proclaimed to him, “I told you so.”
Hance had seen that look before, in all the paintings of the Finding of Jesus in the Temple with the Teachers. He waited for Emmy to say what the boy Jesus had told his parents: “Why did you seek me? Did you not know that I must be about my father’s business?’” But he heard nothing. That look alone sufficed.
He drove home and was asleep before his head hit the pillow, entranced by the memory of Emmy’s quietly defiant face.
– Salutaris, by Gev Sweeney, copyright 2013