“You can't leave like this,” she said. “You can't keep leaving like this. It's been going on for days.”
“You used to tell me you hated it, being on top,” Will said. “You used to say it made you feel too self-conscious to concentrate on the sex.”
“Oh, for Christ's sake,” Edith said.
Will went out the door and down the front steps. He did not close the door behind him. Edith went to it and stood in the draft it made to watch him get into his new Jeep Cherokee and get it started. He'd get out again any minute now to scrape ice off the windshield. Either that, or he'd waste a pile of gas letting the ice melt under the power of the defroster. Why was she thinking about the defroster? Why wasn't Will parking the Jeep in back, where it would be off the street and safe from car thieves?
Will did not get out of the car to scrape ice off his windshield. Edith found herself thinking of her first husband, the one she had married at twenty, the one who really had been a fundamentalist Christian of sorts. She looked up the street at St. Stephen's, but nothing seemed to be happening there. Something was happening at St. Anselm's, but then it always was. She looked into the St. Anselm's parking lot and saw a man trying to get something large and bulky out of the passenger side of the cab of a pickup truck. The illuminated clock on top of St. Stephen's said it was twenty after five.
Edith stepped back into the house and shut the door. She went back across the living room and down the hall and into the kitchen. Her “office” was a sunroom off the kitchen that had once been a porch. Will had enclosed it for her when she had decided that she needed a private space to work in and that the upstairs bedroom was too airless and too isolated to suit.
She turned on the computer and waited for it to get into gear. She looked at the wall where she tacked up the things that made her feel better, at the eight-and-a-half-by-eleven
print of her author photo. Now that she'd seen the pictures of Bennis Hannaford in
, she knew it wasn't a real author photo. It wasn't what she would have if her book was being published by a real New York publisher, instead of by the Freethinker Press. She wondered what would happen to her, now, if Will walked out. She hadn't had a regular day job in years. She didn't make enough from what she wrote to pay the heating bill on the house, never mind to pay the taxes and keep it up. She couldn't go back to being a secretary in a world where secretaries had to know things about computers that she was only able to guess. Most of all, she wondered if the fact that Will had walked in on them was going to mean that she and Ian would have to give it up. Then her computer desktop was in front of her, and she found herself clicking her way onto the Internet and onto the Secular Web.
Sex was like a drug, that was the truth of it, but religion was an even bigger drug, and if it weren't for religion, she wouldn't be in the trouble she was in right now. She wasn't quite sure how that worked out, but she kept it firmly planted in her mind, because it was going to form the theme of her next column, the one that she should have put up a week ago, but that she hadn't because of Will.
If there had really been a God, she would not be stuck here, in this converted back porch, while Will refused to talk to her and Bennis Hannaford was on the pages of
There were a lot of people out there who thought Roy Phipps was failing, that he was some kind of fringe fanatic whose only real accomplishment was to make himself look stupid on the six o'clock evening news. Roy Phipps knew better. Roy was, in fact, an expert on the subject of success and failureânot only about what they meant, but about how they happened. Sometimes it struck him, as nothing else did, what a very different life he would have led if he had done what everybody else wanted of him. In this case, “everybody” meant his advisers at Princeton, the men who had seen him through his four years of academic isolation, the ones who had thought they had, in him, a case study of a local boy making good.
There had been times in those days when he had sat in one professor's office or another and silently imagined the tape playing inside the older man's head: poor boy, fine mind, great future. They were, Roy thought, right about all three things. Nobody could have been poorer than he had been when he had first come up to New Jersey from Millard's Corner, West Virginia. He had come up early, at the beginning of the summer, because he knew that if he didn't, he would never be able to save enough money to buy a set of clothes that didn't have holes in it. Even the Negroes in Millard's Corner had had more money than the Phippses, and most of them had had sense enough not to have eleven children in the bargain. Roy's childhood had been a sink-or-swim nightmare in a sea of perpetual failure: his father, always either too sick or too drunk to work; his mother, so tired she spent most of her time sitting on what was left of their sagging front porch, staring out at the hill in front of their house, doing nothing; his older brothers, always drunk or crazy or banged up so badly they had to spend a week in the hospital. They had had no electricity and no running water. When they had wanted water, they had to go out to the yard and pump it by hand. They had had no money, either, because whenever money came into the house it went out again: for food, for milk, for used clothing at the St. Vincent de Paul Shop in the next town. Sometimes there was no money for weeks, and then the older boys brought back kill from the woods in the back or even from out on the highway. They would skin it and give it to their oldest sister, Loretta, who had been named after Loretta Lynn. Loretta would gut it and cook it in a big cast-iron pot that had never been cleaned very well in all the time that Roy had known it. On those nights, Roy had gone out back and lain in the grass rather than eat, because he hadn't been able to stand it: the ersatz broth already crusting over with animal fat; the pieces of squirrel or racoon or muskrat floating to the surface. Sometimes the moon would rise up over him and fill him full of light. That was when he would know, for sure, that he was different than they wereâbetter, and colder. He was so cold, he was a block of dry ice. Anybody who tried to touch him would get burned. When the day finally came to leave, he hitchhiked into Wheeling and got the bus at the Greyhound station without bothering to say good-bye. They wouldn't have
known where he was going. He had forged his mother's signature on the papers that needed signing for Princeton. None of them knew he had ever applied to college. His mother didn't even know that he had managed to stay in high school.
Now he stood feeling the steam of coffee rising into his face from a very full cup and watched Will Lawton the atheist get into his truck and turn on the motor. Edith Lawton the atheist was standing in the doorway of her house, barefoot, as if she didn't have to care if her toes fell off from frostbite. He had been watching them all this week, and he was fairly sure that they were either not talking to each other at all, or only talking barely. He would have to pay attention. The members of this church were fascinated by the two atheists on their own block. Roy had had to warn them more than once not to go down there to gawk. That was all they needed, under the circumstancesâa few members arrested for “harassing” the heathens, a big black-and-white picture in the
of a few Christians being led away in handcuffs for practicing “hate.” It wasn't that Roy Phipps had anything against hate. In fact, he heartily approved of it. God hated the wicked, and he expected the righteous to hate them, too, and to tell the world the truth about what was becoming of it. God hated lies, which was what the apostate churches trafficked in, all the time, day and night, as if their members could escape their eternal destiny in the agony of hell by merely being bored to death. If there was anybody Roy envied, it was that pastor out in Kansas who had put up the website called
âbut then, come to think of it, he didn't. It was the “fags” that were the problem. Like The Other Word for Negro, Roy never used itânot because it was derogatory, but because it was slang. There was the influence of the Princeton University English Department for you. Roy Phipps, son of a seldom-employed coal miner and a dedicated slattern, raised on roadkill and dandelion greens, valedictorian of his class, could not use slang.
The door to the study clicked open. Roy put his coffee cup down on his desk next to the silver-framed photograph of a small group of no-longer-exactly boys in front of an elegant pseudo-Gothic building. He noticed himself and paid no attention. He noticed Dan Burdock and almost smiled. He thoughtânot for the first timeâthat he might be pushing his
people too far to make them come out to this street to go to church. This was a street, after all, that reeked of everything they were afraid of. This was a street that reeked of money.
The man who had come in was very young and very badly dressed: Fred Havers. Like a lot of just-about-fat men with no sense of taste or proportion, he wore suits and shirts a size too small for him, so that he looked as if he were strangling himself. Still, he was dressed, and at this time of the morning, too. He was even wearing a tie. It was the first thing Roy stressed to his people. Self-discipline was the key. Character was destiny. It was the one thing they didn't know and the one thing they needed most desperately to hear.
Fred came up to the desk and cleared his throat. He was still in his twenties, but so badly out of shape that he looked older than Roy did, if looking older meant looking aged. In some ways, Fred would never look older than anybody. He had the face of someone who is permanently, irretrievably clueless, an expression that veered spasmodically between dazed surprise and embarrassment. He had managed to get through the General Studies course at some high school on the outskirts of Philadelphia without, as far as Roy could tell, learning anything at all.
“So?” Roy said.
Fred cleared his throat again. “I just got back. You know. From over there. St. Stephen's.”
Fred shrugged. “I don't know. Maybe I wasn't looking for the right stuff. They were praying, is all I could see. And some of them were just sitting. In the pews, you know, and then the casket was in the front in front of the altar.”
“And?” Roy said again.
“And nothing. That's what was happening. His mother is there. The guy who died. And so are a lot of men. Gay men, I think. At least, some of them were. They were, you know, kind of funny.”
Roy took a long sip of coffee. It was impossible to explain to somebody like Fred that not all homosexual men behaved like flaming queens.
was a piece of slang Roy could use, at least in the quiet of his mind. He put down the coffee cup and stared at the far wall, over Fred Havers's shoulder. His bachelor's degree from Princeton was there, framed. So
was his master's degree from Harvard, in history. If he had done what they all wanted him to do, he would have gone on for his doctorate and be teaching in some history department right now, and probably have had tenure before he was thirty-five. He tried to remember when he had had his first vision of hell, and couldn't. The story he told to new parishioners, and to the media when they bothered to ask, was that he had been lying on a mattress on a floor in an apartment in Cambridge when suddenly the hardwood underneath him had disappeared and he was engulfed by flames. That was true enough, but he had a feeling that it had not really been the first time, only the most dramatic in a series of times when hell had seemed very close to him. It seemed very close to him now.
“What we want to know,” he said carefully, “is how they're going to handle this funeral. Is it going to be just a funeral, or is it going to be a platform?”
“I know,” Fred said. “I went looking for, you know, a bulletin, but I didn't find one. There was one for next Sunday, but it was all about the loaves and the fishes.”
“It wouldn't be in the bulletin. Did you hear anybody talking about the funeral?”
“Nobody was talking at all. Oh, except the pastor, you know that guyâ”
“Right. But he wasn't where I could hear him. He was up in the choir loft, and I didn't think I ought to go there. It was just him and this one other guy.”
“It's strange in there, though. It's like a Catholic church. And it smelled funny. I got sort of queasy. Are we going to go over there today and picket?”
“I don't know.”
“He was gay, that guy who died. His guy friendâwhatever you call itâhe was there in the church when I went over, kneeling on those kneeler things. So we wouldn't be making a mistake, you know, if we got the signs and went.”
“He didn't die of AIDS.”
“Do we really know that?” Fred asked judiciously. “Don't they try to lie about it, and put other stuff in the paper to keep it quiet? You know, died of cancerâbut they don't say the cancer was caused by AIDS.”
“In this case, it wasn't AIDS. It was cocaine. Have you ever taken cocaine?”
Fred blinked. “I've never done anything worse than drink a few too many beers, except maybe one time I had some boilermakers. They've got whiskey in them. Not that I don't know what a curse drink can be, Pastor Phipps. I know that. But it's not cocaine.”
“Quite.” Fred reminded him of his brothers, that was the trouble. Rock stupid and worse. Roy got up and went back to the window. St. Stephen's was quiet, as usual. St. Anselm's was doing its usual traffic in homeless people.
“All right,” he said. “This is what we do. We do not picket. Not today. We send somebody to attend the funeral. Is Didi Billings going to be around today?”
“She's due to come in and do some typing at nine.”
“Good. We can make her pass, if we have to. Send her in to me as soon as she gets here. We may have to send somebody downtown to buy her a dress. The funeral's at noon. We should have a decent amount of time to get her ready. I don't want her to be obvious.”
“What's she going to do?”
“Listen,” Roy said. “I want to know if Dan Burdock pulls anything. I want to know if he makes some kind of issue out of Scott Boardman's homosexuality. And then I want the rest of us ready. We won't picket at the church, but if we have to, we'll picket at the cemetery. And if we do, I want the media there. Can you arrange that?”
“Yeah,” Fred said.
“Good.” It was true, too. Roy had taught Fred himself, and it wasn't that hard, getting news reporters where you wanted them to go, as long as you weren't competing with a major airline disaster. Roy looked up the street and down it again. Everything was quiet.
Back in his freshman year in college, when he and Dan Burdock had been roommates, Roy had known nothing at all about homosexuality, or about God, either. He had only known that he was untouchable, and that his untouchableness came from a whirling vortex of trivialities he could never quite understand. The way he dressed, the way he spoke, the fact that his ambition was so thoroughly single-minded and so thoroughly ruthlessâhe had changed his dress and his speech, but
the ambition was with him still. He would always remember himself his first night at the YMCA, that summer when he'd come north to earn some money before the start of school. That room, with central heat and a slick linoleum floor, with a bathroom down the hall with running water and a real shower. It had shocked him into speechlessness to realize that down-and-outs in New Jersey expected to have more in the way of amenities than coal miners and sharecroppers in most of West Virginia, and that people in the North believed that there was no one, anywhere, who still had to go out in the cold in the middle of the winter to use a chemical latrine.
It was 1962, and on the streets the girls wore skirts so short they looked like bathing suits, in colors so bright they shone even when there wasn't any sun. On campus once the school year had started, the Princeton boys wore polo shirts and penny loafers they wore until they had to be held together with masking tape. Roy went back and forth from his classroom to his bedroom to the library, over and over again, and only on the outside did he begin to change.
He wished he had thought of it. He really did. He wished he could go down the street to St. Stephen's and look Dan Burdock in the face.
Instead, he went back to his desk and started to go through the material he would need if they did decide to go out to the cemetery and picket. People thought it was easy, but it really took enormous planning, especially if he meant to keep his people in line. They had to be kept in line. When they were let loose on their own, they got violent. There were people who thought he meant them to be violent, but he didn't. He only wanted them to be violent if they were not also out of control.