On a Thursday morning of brilliant sun, the shadow of a passenger jet glided over Mobile Bay, then rippled across the white strip of beach in front of the house, the great oak in the yard, and the several angles of the dark green roof. Bonnie Owen Vandorpe, situated in a rattan chair on the porch and reading a wizened paperback of The Power and the Glory, looked up from the book and squinted at the glare of the bay, dimly aware of some flickering in the natural light and a faraway whisper of displaced air.
From inside the house there came a heavy crash—Macy, the housekeeper, had dropped a cast iron skillet onto the kitchen floor and let out a whoop, leaping backwards to protect her toes.
Bonnie appeared to ponder this question, then sighed and shook her head, as if she wished she needed something from Fairhope. She stared at the threadbare cushions of the couch, at their pattern of olive green palm fronds and red monkeys, and made a mental note to have some new slipcovers sewn for the porch furniture. Heavy glass ashtrays and cardboard coasters with advertising logos rested on delicate tea tables of inlaid cherry. A large garish oil painting, a deep-sea fishing scene, occupied a wall of the living room alongside five handsome black-and-white prints depicting the cathedrals of Europe.
All that was needed to set things right, Bonnie had seen at last, was to rid the house of what indicated the father and keep what indicated the mother. Over the next few weeks she tossed out yards of revolting shag carpeting and then had the beautiful oak floors refinished; pulled down dozens of plastic mini-blinds and replaced them with white sheer drapes; filled two vans from Goodwill Industries with cheap knickknacks and sorry-looking furniture; she had the wallpaper cleaned in the dining room and other rooms newly painted.
Now a breeze, warm and damp, came through the porch screens, and Bonnie stood, moved to the screen door, and looked toward the bay. Here was the ancient live oak of her girlhood, the hundred-armed monster erupting from the ground by the brick wall that abutted the promenade, its myriad of long gray beards Spanish moss swinging in unison toward the house.
Here was the modest lawn, bare and scorched in spots, a patchwork of green, gold, and gray, that stretched between the porch and the wall with its black wrought-iron gate; the blinding strip of beach beyond; the ailing pier that jutted into the water, at its end an empty boat shed with a tin roof so noisy in rainfall you could hear the racket from the house.
Mid-afternoon, the beach was deserted; a fishing boat appeared now and then far out in the bay and moved almost imperceptibly across the horizon. He walked up to her as if she was his intended destination, stopped, and said hello.
He was dressed like a cowboy—faded jeans, denim jacket, boots, and a carved leather belt buckle the size of a saucer; his longish black hair tucked behind his ears, his bright blue eyes both guileless and intrusive beneath thick eyebrows, he radiated physical beauty, a thing Bonnie still sometimes felt must be endured as much as enjoyed. His looks had been her chief preoccupation during that first meeting, such that her recollection of what was said remained spotty.
Bonnie in turn disclosed the bare bones of her situation: Pastor had sat beside her in the sand and most of the time gazed out at the bay while they talked. She believed that he saw her, as no one had ever seen her—partly because he had the eyes for it, and partly because she was for the first time someone definite to be seen.
The last several weeks her mind had been dispensing with most fears in this fashion, an effect, she believed, generated by her happiness. It simply rendered them like, as Pastor had said, boiling water did to fat in a pot on the stove , so they might be seen for what they truly were. Then they could be felt thoroughly and do what most fears were supposed to do: Every time the wind blew, it rattled our walls.
And what chance does a person have, under those circumstances, for any degree of happiness? Such talk revealed him to Bonnie but also showed his understanding of her lifelong trouble. Equally startling, the lovemaking itself had comprised for four full months nothing more than kissing and fondling, and the ease with which he moved from physical affection to this other kind, a caring for her soul, made even the novelty of it feel to her like part of the romance.
The first of June, they got engaged. Fear, so long allowed to burn unchecked inside her, continued to sputter out these desperate flaming arrows, but the difference today was that they seldom ignited anything. In a way, even their hot little sting served to remind her of how she had changed. Now Bonnie pushed open the screen door a few inches, wondering where the cat could have gotten to, and then she was jolted by the sound of a voice behind her.
When she turned, she saw Pastor standing in the doorway. Do you by any chance want to come with me today? I mean, today, especially? Now, however, she felt strangely caught by him at something.
Now talk to me about the next verse. She watched as he maneuvered the car into the driveway with one hand and rigged a headset to his ears with the other. Bonnie remained at the door until the Jeep disappeared in the distance through the brick columns at the entrance to the property. In the dim mottled glass she saw, not herself, but her older sister Ellen, and astonishingly, this older, paler, and entirely unglamorous woman burst into tears.
She did not take her book down to the beach to soak up some sunshine. The sun was oppressive this time of year and she was tired of The Power and the Glory, which she used mostly as a prop, something to hold in her hands those mornings when Pastor stayed home to work and she wanted to be near him.
She decided, instead, to take a long bubble bath and wash her hair, the kind of action her theater friends in New York called changing your energy. The bathroom, attached to the master bedroom, was her favorite room in the house. Its pair of French windows reminded her of her lovely apartment on the Upper West Side of Manhattan, now occupied by a tenant.
That moment, and their ensuing bland exchange, she thought, was mostly about sweet, beautiful Pastor, in his new home, trying to work out the mystery of his having chosen her. Always kind, always patient—How are you feeling? Do you want to come with me to the church? How much longer are you going to continue to feel poorly? Is there anything you can do about that pasty complexion? The vision of her older sister in the hallway mirror, and the sudden tears, had undone Bonnie, but only temporarily.
Since mailing Ellen the pored-over letter revealing her marriage, Bonnie had thought of her older sister daily. More than two weeks had passed since then, longer than Bonnie had anticipated, but Pastor had encouraged her to be patient. Bonnie had told him that she loved Ellen and Morris very much, but that her connection to them was complicated, and she would be distracted on her wedding day by what she imagined to be their opinions of everything.
She was enough at peace with all this, she decided, and happy that none of her worries had developed into anything resembling an obsession. She meant to give her sister all the time she needed. It would be selfish to rush Ellen for the benefit of her own relief.
She dried off, turbaned her hair in the bath towel, and pulled on a light summer robe. At her dressing table in the bedroom she towel-dried her shoulder-length hair and combed it back over the top of her head and behind her ears. She changed into shorts and a tank top, found the nail polish she wanted and a bag of cotton balls, then went barefoot to the screen porch and took a seat on the rattan couch.
She thought, paperboy, girl scout, political canvasser, and hobbled through the house, walking on the heel of her right foot. About halfway to the door, she thought, irrationally, Ellen, which made her heart race.
But of course it was not Ellen. When Bonnie opened the door in the foyer, she saw, to her slight horror, a middle-aged woman whom she immediately identified as someone from the Church of the Blessed Hunger. Large and strong-looking, with short, dark brown, tightly permed hair, the woman wore a black-and-white tent dress and shiny pink flip-flops and held with both hands a shoe box filled with peaches. And all those legs jumbled up underneath it. Delk was seated on the porch, Bonnie, still hobbling around, took the peaches to the kitchen and poured two tumblers of tea from a pitcher in the refrigerator.
When she returned, she told Mrs. After a pause, Mrs. Everything is peaches and more peaches in Chilton County. I guess they had a bumper crop this year since the spring weather cooperated. Do you like them, Mrs. You can be honest. The minute you pick a peach it just stops dead.
Tell me about you, Mrs. That polish is a lovely shade of red. I used to think about the people who must live in them and what their lives must be like. People are just people and houses are just houses, I guess. My mother was the Emily Post of Point Clear before she died nine years ago. Any time anybody needed to know the right way to do something they would call up my mother and she would tell them. And me, I have to think about what side of the plate to put the knife and fork on every time I set the supper table.
No, no, not at all. It used to be you could drop in on somebody if you haCan it be true that you grew up right here in this very house? Practically nobody at church can stop talking about how pretty you are. And you know, I have nothing but admiration for any kind of a struggling artist.
I never needed to work to put food on the table. I mean, what gave you the idea? You know, a kind of childish make-believe. And that I was doing it for the wrong reasons. It was as if they were braver—they had little fear of venturing great distances inside a role, of wholly giving themselves to it—because they were, at some very deep level, anchored.
Bonnie had no anchor. Now she thought, Ironic, for she had finally ventured far, and look where she had ended up, back in her childhood home. Do you sing, Mrs. I thought, being an actress, you might sing. What would we do if everybody wanted to sing in the choir?
Where did you go to church in New York? But I was baptized a Presbyterian, which was what my mother was. Delk cried, with delight. My father was like yours, went to services about three or four times a year, but he was such a good man. Well, some of us do, I guess. I think I have to.