SARA C. ROLATER
MRS. SPENCER loaded the grinder in the teachers lounge. She had a hangover the size of Kentucky and had heard all of this before.
“What’d he do this time?” asked Brandi, twisted over the sofa back.
“You were at Mass yesterday,” Mrs. Spencer said.
Brandi pursed her lips, considering. “Of course,” she said. “Who else?”
Yesterday, during St. Anthony’s weekly student service, Tommy Tolivar had affected a flatulent eruption to coincide with Father Bruce’s elevation of the sacred host, the very moment of its transubstantiation into Christ.
Mrs. Spencer could tolerate a certain amount of clowning in her classroom, but as a founding member of Our Ladies of Perpetual Love, who had spent half the night in that pew so that the Body of Christ would not be left alone, she took this offense personally. The grinder’s roar sliced through her head like a chainsaw. This morning Tommy’s mother had proven every bit as stubborn as her son, unflappable in her belief that the simulation of flatulence was a victimless crime.
Brandi was still going. “That time Tommy knocked out Kristen Hadley’s teeth, you know what that woman said? They were just baby teeth. Talk about missing the point ”
But if she’d spent the night with the consecrated hosts leftover from the previous Sunday, did that mean Father Bruce had just been going through the motions?
“And two days later he’s right back in class, eyeing me like what are you gonna do about it, missy.”
Some evil person had brought in a lemon cake and Mrs. Spencer took a piece over to a lilac armchair, the one whose rigid arms were set wide enough to accommodate her sizable rear end. There was, she knew, a student tradition of attempting to measure it behind her back. It took more than one ruler.
Roxie Croxdale, another fourth grade veteran and a good friend, sat in the chair adjacent. It was Roxie who had given Mrs. Spencer her cocker spaniel, Oscar, just three months ago, and just in time. Cockroaches the size of almonds had always nested in the walls of the kitchen; Lester had taken strange pleasure in strapping a can of pesticide to his back and spraying the baseboards. In the three years since his death, Mrs. Spencer had begun to take solace in the roaches as her only living company, talking to them, naming them, and this had scared her. Talking to a dog was more acceptable, for whatever reason.
“How are things, Mary?” Roxie patted her arm. “Your eye okay there?”
Mrs. Spencer, mouth full, gave a feeble nod. She didn’t feel like explaining that she’d stabbed it with a wand of mascara flooring it for a yellow light. She wasn’t herself. Last week she had come upon Oscar, what was left of him, streaked across the middle of the road. At the sight something inside of her dropped, as though her heart was trying to escape her body, and she didn’t remember walking the few blocks back to the house. Lester had had a heart attack on a ladder, clearing the gutters, and was dead before he hit the ground. She hoped Oscar’s death had been as painless, as luxurious, but the murderous driver had not come forward to provide such closure.
“Things’ll get better,” Roxie assured her. “There’s more where Oscar came from, you know,” she added. “If you’re thinking about another one.”
Mrs. Spencer choked down a dry cake morsel. Animals reputedly didn’t have souls, but that didn’t make them quite so interchangeable. Oscar was specific, his theft from her. Job-like in its gratuitous cruelty.
“Maybe not just yet,” Roxie said. She scrunched her features good-naturedly and asked what the youngest member of the Spencer clan was up to these days. Amy had long been a safer bet than Monica to inquire after, but that time was long past. Mrs. Spencer offered stiffly that Amy was traveling a bit and got up to check the coffee.
She had covered the night watch as an attempt to render her insomnia productive. Out of respect for her founding-member status, she was generally exempt from the Ladies’ less desirable time slots, and so she’d never been in the church when it was completely empty, after the sun had set. Other than the few candles immediately surrounding the altar, where the hosts sat in their gold ruby-studded monstrance, only a single light burned from the direction of the sacristy. It was so dark that the stained-glass mosaics in the walls had turned black, the cubist images that blazed with color in the light now indiscernible.
Mrs. Spencer soon gave up trying to read from the gold-leafed pages of her Bible and pulled a screwtop bottle from the tote at her feet. The wine bubbled in her gut before ascending quickly to her head; she’d neglected to eat dinner, which proved a tactical error as the candle-licked darkness became conducive to visions, a canvas for the unmentionable to smear itself. Trying to pray for the souls of the dead—Lester, likely in purgatorial straits; Oscar, whether he had a soul or not—she was faced in particular with one that had not induced grief: that of Amy’s girlfriend, partner, whatever they wanted to call it. The one with the name of a boy who was decidedly not one.
Amy seemed to have caught the travel bug early—the summer the girls were ten and twelve the family spent three months touring Europe, one of the happiest times of Mrs. Spencer’s life, what was starting to seem the last happy time—but the traveling Amy had been doing upon graduating from an expensive liberal arts college in Vermont was more akin to that of a migrant Mexican laborer. The type where a tent was considered a roof, where hygiene went to the dogs, where walking was hiking, and this is what the pair had been doing, in Yosemite, when they encountered the coil of a rattlesnake after rounding a bend in the trail. Macauley tumbled from the embankment, hitting her head on a rock. These were the details Amy had relayed over the phone, three days before Oscar was killed, in a monotone that Mrs. Spencer suspected was pharmaceutically moderated.
It was only now, in the dark of the church, that Mrs. Spencer found herself musing about the facets of the accident. Had the snake actually lunged? Had Macauley hung there momentarily, clinging to a root, or a rock, or a crag? Could Amy have saved her? Or had she decided no, it was too dangerous? Had she watched her fall?
She had not brought a glass, and drank straight from the bottle. It did not seem so far-fetched that her younger daughter might recognize here the hand of divine intervention, that she might return to the religion she’d been raised with, that she might even eventually be compelled to look up that nice young man who had been her Pro-Life Club co-president in high school…
Mrs. Spencer woke the next morning prone in the pew. The brightness of the sun obscured the stained-glass mural of Christ, throwing its piecemeal oranges and reds across the rows of padded benches like shreds of flame. Outside, a breeze shifted the branches of an oak, and when Mrs. Spencer saw the blur of colors flickering under the shadows of the leaves cast on the church’s nappy carpet, the residue of Amy still clinging dream-sticky to her consciousness, she saw her daughter there among the dancing colors, burning.
Though they had both called dutifully every week for a period following Lester’s death, Monica had settled back into her chilly once-a-month routine, and several weeks might elapse between calls from Amy. Last night, her voice on the line had been a surprise.
“I’m sorry about your dog, Mom.”
Mrs. Spencer already had a crick in her neck from pinning the cordless to her shoulder for the inordinate amount of time it had taken Karen Tolivar’s secretary to patch her through. She had already killed a bottle of wine. Now she reached for another, the last in the wire rack by the microwave, where her Lean Cuisine chicken spun round.
"I know, it's just terrible," she said, her voice perversely bright. There’d been a time when Mrs. Spencer confronted Amy about her duplicitous morals, her imperiled soul, but now the tone she took with her younger daughter was all forced cheerfulness; it bubbled up from the depths of her being like so much wine-purpled vomit. “I thought he must have dug a hole under the fence,” she burbled, “but then I saw the door into the garage was open. The knob was tied to that little hook. That one your father rigged? But the weird thing is, I never use that hook. Amy, nobody uses that door anymore.”
Amy was silent for a moment. “Yeah, that’s pretty weird,” she finally said. Mrs. Spencer strolled aimlessly into the living room, picked up one of the plastic swords she used to teach her class about the Crusades. She swiped at the air, invoking a conversational tidbit to cut the silence. “So tell me something. Roxie and I were arguing about this. Oscar was the blue muppet on Sesame Street, right? The one with the noodle arms and pink nose?”
“That was Grover.”
“Noo. Grover was the green one that lived in a trashcan. Grover the Grouch.”
“Oscar was the grouch. Oscar the Grouch.”
“But Grover the Grouch has the alliteration.”
“Google it, Mom.”
Mrs. Spencer brought her sword down on the couch’s arm. “Well, shoot,” she said. “Do you know what this means? Oscar had the wrong name. I never would have named him after a grouch.”
A pause from Amy and then, “Well I don’t know what to tell you.”
Neither of her daughters had excess stores of kindness for their mother. They were both selfish, pursuing pleasures in a finite world. At Lester’s funeral, sitting between them in a front-row pew in the church they’d both abandoned, she’d felt flanked by statues, felt that it was via her touch and for her alone they turned to stone.
“So how are things going?” courtesy compelled a mother to ask.
“Just fine and dandy.”
Mrs. Spencer truly hated that her daughter was in pain. But at the same time, Amy had always held herself above the simple physical facts of the world, its statistics of harm and its danger of death. Now she would know. Two young women out in the world like that—of course something bad was going to happen. And Mrs. Spencer was glad, down-on-her-knees beseechingly glad, that it hadn’t been Amy. When Amy was nine Mrs. Spencer had watched her chase a basketball in front of a two-ton pickup. The Lord had spared her that day, but He had other days in mind. There were days lying in wait to cast a shadow over all the ones that followed.
“So what are you doing,” Mrs. Spencer murmured into the receiver. “You’re staying with a friend?” She was grateful Amy had not opted to stay with Monica out there on the coast; she would not have to imagine them sitting in some dim bar, Monica stirring a vodka tonic while Amy knocked back a beer, sisters wading through a cesspool of combined maternal grievance.
“Yeah,” Amy said. “But she works a lot, so I mostly have the place to myself.”
“Are you looking for work?” Mrs. Spencer asked hopefully.
There was a familiar muffled slurp. “No, Mom, I’m not looking for work right this particular second.”
“That’s fine, that’s fine.” But she couldn’t stop herself. “It’s just that I get so uncomfortable when you don’t have insurance. I’m only worried about your safety. What if it had been—”
“Just drop it Mom, okay? I don’t really feel like talking to you about this.”
Mrs. Spencer was back in the kitchen, bathed in darkness, but her cheerful lilt would not be deterred. “You know I just want the best for you, right? You know I love you?”
“Yes,” Amy snapped. “Yes, I know you love me.” But the longer she let the words hang there without returning the sentiment, the more plaintively sarcastic they became.
“Actually,” Amy added. Her tone was modulated by the quiver of tears, so rare for her, so startling, that Mrs. Spencer knocked her glass too hard with the neck of the bottle. The bulb cracked into large shards that seemed to fall away slowly, like the petals of a flower. The sword still dangled from her other hand.
“Yes?” Mrs Spencer managed. “Honey, what is it?”
Amy sighed, a gush of air that rasped over the receiver like wind in a shell. “We have a storage unit down the street from here. I’ve been meaning to go down there. And clear it out.”
Mrs. Spencer heard in the far distance a dog bark she could not place on her end or Amy’s.
“But I just. I haven’t been able to yet.”
It came again, the bark, forlorn, it sounded like—in need.
“I thought you could come out here for a couple of days,” Amy was saying. “And help me.”
Red wine dripped from the white counter to the floor. A curious roach poked its head from the crevice between the counter and stove. Amy had not appealed directly for her mother’s help since she was a child. Mrs. Spencer whacked at the roach, but it easily evaded her. She tossed back the ruby swig left atop the stem, recalling then against her will the one time she had met the girl, here, in this house. In this kitchen the girl had concocted an inedible mixture of chocolate chips, potato chips, cubes of sharp cheddar cheese, and as Mrs. Spencer sat across the table from her, attempting to swallow, the girl’s face was an opaque net her eyes could not penetrate.
She struck the counter with her sword, but it was not the sword—it was the stem. Pebbles of glass sprayed across the granite. Chocolate and cheese did not go together. Her lungs were devoid of air, her voice devoid of sound, and as her own tears welled and spilled she let the cordless slide from between her neck and shoulder, gently thumbed the big round button to end the call. She set the phone down on the counter, and walked away as it rang again. Went to her bathroom, dug out the Ambien. Bandaged her bleeding hand.
The first bell rang and down the hall the gym doors banged open like heavy artillery. Mrs. Spencer sat at her behemoth of a desk, sipping a cup of sludge. The gauze she’d wound around her palm was dirty. Her eye twitched intermittently.
Tommy Tolivar was first across the threshold, leading a procession of his loyal followers. He pumped a fist on an imaginary trombone as he circled the room, hiking his knees, blaring an atonal tune. His disciples dropped one by one into their desks, but Tommy kept on, switching from trombone to guitar, his tiny form gyrating as he orated a solo in high-pitched wails.
Mrs. Spencer imagined squeezing the crucifix above the blackboard in her fist like a hammer—
“Tommy!” she shrieked. “Sit down!”
Tommy froze in his pose for comic effect; announcements crackled over the intercom.
Good morning, St. Anthony’s. Today is Wednesday, October twenty-first…
As morning prayers ended Mrs. Spencer snatched the chalk, scratched Leaders, Countries, Battles, Outcomes onto the board. She crowned herself with a felt papal hat from her desk drawer, hefted once again the sword, and began her interrogation. Today’s lesson was the Fourth Crusade.
Crusaders crusaded because they were guaranteed eternal life: this was a harped-on cornerstone, one Sharon Simms got right away. But no one could articulate what the crusaders of the Fourth had done that they were denied their rightful spiritual due. A sea of blank faces that were not keeping up with the reading. She turned and wrote Excommunication on the board, underlining it with a screeching flourish that sent hands to ears, sparked groans. To Mrs. Spencer, the sound was oddly reminiscent of creaking hinges, though no imaginary slam followed: a door opening, not closing.
“Why?” Mrs Spencer said. “Tommy?”
Tommy had been reaching across the aisle, poking Charlie Tatum in the ribs. “Why what?” he said.
Mrs. Spencer ignored him and proceeded to select a handful of students to act out the first scene she had scripted, stringing round their necks lanyards that designated roles. In this way she christened her favorite student, Betsy Cringle, as though bestowing a Nobel: the Venetians. And as she had when crafting this lanyard, Mrs. Spencer summoned a certain leg of that long-ago European tour, glorious water-veined Venice. The city where fine Italian wines had seeped into her like long silk ribbons, where proximity to the Vatican had brought comfort and peace, where galleries showcased the endless splendor with which the Renaissance painters had rendered so many slices of biblical lore. But the string felt strange between her fingers before she let it settle on Betsy’s nape. It was from an enormous ball of twine that predated the girls; it had been the size of a small boulder when Lester bought it and was still, decades later, nearly as big as a basketball. This particular length of string had a hue of mold, the grossly delicate consistency of rot. She glanced at the pile of lanyards on her desk, whose strings were oddly, markedly whiter.
As Pope Innocent III, Mrs. Spencer faced down those crusaders lured from pursuit of the Holy Land by battles for booty. “I forbid this attack! You will all be excommunicated!”
“I will pay you,” read Colin Tomkins, Byzantine emperor Alexius Angelus IV. “Then let us take Consitople by force!” Charlie Tatum, Crusaders.
By the Fourth Crusade, being consigned to eternal damnation did not much bother Crusaders, and this was the vital kernel of the lesson that Mrs. Spencer wanted to impart. She held up the Time Sword to pause the scene.
“They had a ticket into Heaven and they said no thanks and tore it up.”
How she needed to make Hell real for these children, so that down the road they would not break their mothers’ hearts. How quickly it could happen, Amy calling how many years ago to tell her—
And how she’d been unable to respond, standing mute until Lester tugged the cordless from her hand and took it out to the garage to speak to his favored progeny in private. But Mrs. Spencer had gone out the back door to the patio, had gone around the jutting alcove of the kitchen to the back of the garage, where she could hear Lester—Whatever you want, sweetheart—because the door was standing open, the knob tied to that little hook.
Mrs. Spencer looked down at Betsy, who was mid-line—our sworn enemy—but she was also passing through that open door to the backyard, lugging the can of pesticide. She needed to test spray it after digging it out of the bowels of the garage for the first time since Lester’s death—no longer, thanks to Oscar, enjoying the roaches’ living company. The length of string she’d secured the door with had been nearly rotted through, but she never used this door and figured it would hold just one more time, though about to break—and if it had, the bile of realization rising up her throat as she stood at the front of the classroom under an intent collective gaze (it was Pope Innocent III’s line), the door might have blown shut against her own blind negligence, Oscar might still be—
A slobbery rattle brought her back to her senses, a mocking vibration, a familiar refrain.
“That wasn’t me!” The boy squawked. As if there weren’t eyes in her head.
She regretted immeasurably that corporal punishment had gone the way of the Latin Mass. As a spur-of-the-moment substitution, she decided to cast Tommy as the most unquestionably evil character of the day, Alexius Angelus III, who had gouged out his own brother’s eyes to steal his seat on the throne.
“Get up here,” she snapped.
In an admittedly satisfying moment Tommy flinched as she raised the lanyard, but this did not keep her fingers from shaking as she roped it around his neck. Affixed to a giant basketball-sized wad of itself the string maintained its integrity, didn’t disintegrate like the length that had dangled from the little hook. If she hadn’t remembered tying the door, what else had been forgotten?
Tommy plonked the fake jeweled crown atop his head and raised his scepter, aglow with pleasure. Boys liked bloody battles; the curriculum was biased. For Tommy this was not punishment at all, and Mrs. Spencer was suddenly seized by the rage of injustice—was suddenly seizing Tommy himself. She grabbed him by the shoulders and bent down to his face, about to utter some very important thing, she was sure. But she had forgotten, as well, what scene they were about to enact, and even though Tommy’s line was wrong—“Unhand me thoust villain!”— and his victim was wrong—she was not the emperor-brother Isaac Angelus—the gesture was exactly right.
The twin prongs of Tommy’s fingers flew at the socket of her eyes.
The vision that erupted on the black-red curtain of her eyelids was from one of the Venice galleries, that of a painting of Saint Ursula ascending to Heaven.
The day she’d first seen this painting, some fifteen years ago, she’d been slightly miffed, the weather a tad too hot and Lester leading them on a feet-swelling foray among back alleys before finally locating their destination, so that when her eyes fell upon this ascent, they quickly penetrated beyond the radiant central figure of the cherub-ringed Ursula, beyond the pious faces of the virgins kneeling at her feet, beyond the bearded stern-faced God hovering above her, beyond the seraphim guarding the tiny glimpse of blue Heaven at the top. She’d found herself incredibly distracted by a portion of the backdrop depicting ongoing secular activity. On green hills miniature men rode teeny horses; little-bitty red-cloaked figures gathered at a blue pond’s edge. Who were these people, that they could just go about their lives in the overwhelming presence of divinity?
As the stunning image returned to her in all of its vivid dimensions, she had the sensation of tumbling through it, into it, as though she might reach these sacrilegious citizens and shake them. But when she got there, she found herself suddenly alone; all she could see in any direction was a uniform rolling, Edenesque green. She tried to move forward, back toward that sparkling celestial vision, but was then falling again, no root system to cling to, no outstretched hand to grab. That terrifying sensation of free-fall when the brain cannot locate itself, has momentarily lost its connection to the beating heart.
She came to on the cold tile of the classroom floor, uncertain of how long she’d been lying there, or how long she remained observing the imperceptible brightening in the curtain over her vision. Until—her eyes opened a little. The fluorescent light seared. Someone was standing over her.
A tiny hand filled hers. “Mrs Spencer, it’s Betsy.” The hand tugged hers ineffectually. “Should I get somebody?”
Mrs Spencer squeezed the hand tighter.
“Call Amy,” she finally said. “Get Amy on the phone.”
SARA C. ROLATER received a BA from Rice University, where she twice received the George Williams Prize for fiction and was a Minter Summer Scholar. She is currently an MFA candidate at the University of Houston. Crusade is her first publication.