Karen Guzman

Between You and Me

My grandfather was fond of telling a story he said perfectly illustrated his religious faith. He told it with the pride of a blind zealot. He was a pious man, my grandfather. He was a gentle and decent man, too. He simply believed what he believed, all earthly evidence to the contrary. But his conversion story I do not believe. I did not believe it as a child, growing up in a village on the Massachusetts coast where ship masts dotted the harbor, and my father disappeared every morning on a trawler loaded with nets and ice and men who believed in hard work above all else. And I don’t believe it now at the age of thirty-two, when I have my own stories, my own moments of glimmering transcendence and wordless abandonment to share.

* * *

My grandfather, Allen Browley, joined the Church on the Rock when I was nine. They lived with us, my grandparents, Allen and Audrey. Or rather we lived with them, in their elaborate Victorian off the village green. Commercial fishing is a cruel business, a fickle dance with the elements and fate. My father’s luck ran out. Since there were only three of us — my parents and me, an only child — it was easy to move into my father’s parents’ home. There were plenty of empty rooms and no mortgage. It was understood that my parents would one day inherit the house.

I loved that house. The wooden floors that creaked underfoot, the heavy oak banister wrapped with evergreens at Christmas, the ruby-red stained glass window above the front door that flooded the entrance hall with rosy light on sunny mornings. There was an old, alabaster, claw-foot tub in the narrow half-bath off the kitchen where I would lie, soaking and eavesdropping on the adults as they sat around the table, gossiping about neighbors.

From my bedroom window, I could see the outer edges of the harbor. As a child and teenager, I felt a secret collusion with its restless waters. When my date came down with mononucleosis two days before the prom and I sat in my room, a miserable and damned creature, the harbor winked glassy and knowing. Never mind, it whispered, and I felt I was standing cupped in God’s palm. This has always been enough for me, this teasing chime of a vaster recognition that sounds for an instant and recedes. It wasn’t enough for Grandpa.

His church took its name from an actual rock at the town beach. It’s a boulder, an ancient, glacial remnant stuck in the sand that disappears at high tide and appears again when the water retreats. “Just like our Lord,” Grandpa was fond of saying. “Always there, even when we can’t see Him.”

My grandmother had no use for the Church on the Rock. She would roll her eyes and push away from the table when Grandpa started sermonizing. Grandma was from a generation of women who did not publicly debate their husbands, but in private she cut loose.

“Those fanatics,” she hissed to me in the kitchen one night when Grandpa’s Bible study was meeting in our living room. I was ten. “Those lunatics have him eating out of their hands.” She whipped a dish towel over a plate. “They brainwashed him, those cavemen,” she said. “Imagine a grown man in this day and age believing the earth is only 2,000 years old? Now, I haven’t got much education, myself, I know. Maybe I’m just a simple woman, but at least I believe in dinosaurs.”

I believed in dinosaurs, too, and I wondered why Grandpa’s friends didn’t. “I’m going to take a bath, Grandma,” I said.

From the claw-foot tub, I could hear the goings-on in the living room. I slid into the hot water up to my neck and positioned my foot underneath the trickling tap—the better to hear the voices. I’d peeked at the group of men, six in all, sitting on our couch and loveseat and on a couple of dining room chairs that had been carried in for the meeting. Each held a dark, heavy book I assumed to be a Bible. There was a tall, balding man Grandpa called “Al.” I knew Al sang in the choir, because I’d heard Grandpa rave about his voice. Next to Al sat a younger man, thick-bodied and able with a head full of dark curls and a red flannel shirt. He looked like a fisherman from the village. The others I didn’t recognize: an owlish, bespectacled fellow and two grandfatherly types who looked like the sort to keep candy in their pockets for the grandkids.

“Let love be without dissimulation. Abhor that which is evil; cleave to that which is good,” Grandpa read, his voice dropping the way it always did when he quoted scripture. “That’s Paul talking to the Romans. But what do we hear in his advice today?

A moment of silence, and then a voice ringing with conviction: “Live Christ’s love, without prejudice, without holding back.”

I shifted in the tub. It was nice, these old guys talking about love. I couldn’t see what Grandma objected to. I liked their earnest voices, their resolute “Amens.”

“We must love even those who despise us, who spit upon us,” Grandpa said.

Spit? I went to catechism class at the Catholic Church. I was due to be confirmed in a year. My parents were not devout by any stretch, but they did believe in covering their bases. Joining the church was important, even if you couldn’t bring yourself to buy the whole bag of goods. My parents believed in the march of social progress and scientific inquiry. God existed, but His face could not be fathomed. Gazing at the harbor with its invisible currents and sudden swells, where at the age of ten I had somehow deduced God must live, this seemed to make sense.

They were praying in the living room now. “Mold us in thy image, fill our hearts with compassion. Hold us in thy loving care, shield us in this world of pain and uncertainty. We ask these things in Jesus’ name. Amen.”

I sighed and watched my breath skitter across the water’s surface. I wanted God’s protective shield, His loving care, too. Who wouldn’t? I pulled the stopper and watched the water disappear in determined swirls.

Grandpa joined his church after having what he called a “revelation.” I remember first hearing his conversion story when I was about twelve, and we were all sitting at the dinner table. Grandpa liked to periodically regale us with tale.

“We were in the little sunfish sailboat — Joe Ormsby and me — Ned, you remember that boat?” My father nodded.

“Well, the water started getting rough. We never should have been out there, that hour of the evening with the sun going down. We were fools.”

“You certainly were,” Grandma said. “Ned, Carolyn? More sweet potatoes?” The bowl passed around the table.

“Laura?” My mother asked.

“No thanks,” I said.

“As I was saying,” Grandpa continued unfazed, “things were getting scary, wicked high walls of water washing over the deck. I don’t have to tell you, Ned, what it’s like when the ocean turns on you...”

“Nope, you don’t,” Grandma said.

“… Joe is hanging on for all he’s worth, yelling his head off. I can barely hear him. He’s got this look of sheer panic on his face. And I’m equally scared myself. I’m not saying I wasn’t. I just think maybe Joe knew what was coming...”

“Oh, he did?” Grandma said. “Then why did he go out in the boat in the first place?”

Grandpa ignored the question, directing his story primarily at my parents. “Then the squall starts really hammering us. I’m clinging to a rope, figuring this might be the end. I might never make it home again. Next thing I know there’s this great force, a mighty whack slamming into us, and then we’re overboard. The boat’s gone. I’m fighting to keep my head above water, coughing and sucking in air and screaming, ‘Joe!’

“He’s nowhere. I can’t find him. I can’t see the boat. The waves are pulling me under. Then miracle of miracles, Joe appears. Pops up like a cork right in front of me, and we grab each other. And that’s how we stay for what feels like hours, two drowning specks clinging to each other. I don’t know if we were pulling each other down or holding each other up. I’m pleading with God, making all sorts of promises, when Joe spots the boat. It’s not far, upsided, bobbing like crazy. We let go of each other and start swimming towards it.” Grandpa paused, his dark eyes bright with memory and drama.

“Allen, greens?” Grandma said. “Don’t get yourself worked up now. You’re scaring Laura. Have some more greens.”

“I’m not scared,” I said.

“For pity’s sake, Audrey, let me tell the story. I’m getting to the important part,” Grandpa said. Grandma rolled her eyes. When Grandpa was back in the waves, the only thing to do was let him swim out.

“It was near impossible, you can imagine, swimming through that treacherous sea, but Joe and I kept trying, kicking as hard as we could, punching at the waves, gaining an inch or two and getting knocked back. Then all of a sudden — I’m not kidding — this swell, this force lifts me and sort of half-pushes, half-carries me to the boat. I grab a rigging rope and hang on with all my might.”

“Did you still think you were going to die?” I asked. I couldn’t picture Grandpa fighting the sea or anything else for that matter. He was a soft-spoken, sinewy man, who liked to sit for hours watching the birds visit the feeders in our yard.

“I wasn’t thinking much of anything, to tell you the truth, except how to hang onto that rope,” he said. “Next thing I know I’m looking at the beach, at the lights along Main Street. The waves have kinda died down, and they’re pushing me toward shore. Slowly, it felt like a lifetime, but the boat and I were getting washed ashore. When I could stand, I staggered up the beach and collapsed. The bells in the Congregational Church on the green tolled, and that’s when I knew. I just knew.”

“Knew what, Allen?” Grandma asked, putting down her fork and staring at him. Early in his conversion, she had tried to reason him out of his interpretation. She sometimes still couldn’t resist. “Knew that you were one lucky old man?”

“I knew the Lord had saved me, and that He was tapping me on the shoulder right then, saying, ‘Listen up. I am your God.’”

Grandma snorted. “Maybe next time you’ll be swallowed by a whale, Allen.”

My parents laughed, but Grandpa just shrugged and smiled. His connection to the Almighty was impervious. “The unbeliever has not ears to hear,” he said.

“Maybe not, Honey. Maybe not,” Grandma said, patting his hand. She stood. “Anybody ready for coffee?” She headed into the kitchen. I heard the steel coffee pot clang and the refrigerator door swing open. As far as Grandma was concerned, the issued was closed. But something about the story bothered me that night. A detail that hadn’t crystallized before now struck me as monstrous. “What about Mr. Ormsby?” I said. I knew Joe Ormsby died in that squall.

“The Lord must have had another plan,” Grandpa said.

“God drowned him?” I imagined a giant hand reaching from the sky to push a gurgling, bald-headed Joe Ormsby beneath the waves.

“Of course not.”

“But he let him drown?”

“We just don’t know,” Grandpa said, a solemn reverence coming over his face.

“No, we don’t. And neither does anyone else, so there’s really no point reading too much into these things,” my father said, piping up in an uncharacteristically challenging way.

Grandpa opened his mouth to respond, just as Grandma emerged from the kitchen. “Coffee and pie, get them while they’re hot,” she called.

“Amen,” my father said.

“Amen,” Grandpa whispered, closing his eyes.

I remember the afternoon of Joe Ormsby’s funeral. Grandpa insisted on making us all a special dinner. He banished us from the kitchen, and spent the afternoon chopping clams and mixing steak marinade. Grandma and I retreated to her vegetable garden. We dropped to our knees among the tomato plants and began weeding. The chest-high plants hid us from the outside world. Their fringed leafs reached out like little hands. I rubbed one and brought my fingers to my nose to inhale the sunny, fertile aroma. The earth was soft and welcoming. It was cool close to the ground.

“Why is Grandpa cooking dinner alone?” I said.

“It’s his way of saying thank you,” Grandma said. A fly landed on the brim of her straw hat, and she waved it away.

“Who’s he thanking?”

“Us, God. He’s paying us all back.”

“For what?”

“For not drowning with poor Joe Ormsby.”

“What will happen to Mr. Ormsby now?” I didn’t attend the funeral. My parents thought I was too young.

“He’ll return to nature, Honey,” Grandma said. “That’s what happens.”

“Where is nature, Grandma?” I imagined the wild New Hampshire mountains where we camped every summer. Was Joe Ormsby trekking around up there?

Grandma stopped weeding. She pulled off her gardening gloves and looked at me. She smiled. Sadly, I thought. She brushed the hair from my forehead. “It’s everywhere, Honey,” she said.

“But won’t he go to heaven?”

“Sometimes I think they’re the same thing.”

“Will we go, too?”

“One day, of course. All of us.”

An eternity in the mountains didn’t sound like a bad deal to me. I loved camping. “We’ll share a tent, Grandma,” I said, giggling. And she hugged me for a long time.

                                                         

* * *

I married Andrew after he finished his Ph.D. in mathematics at M.I.T. We were both twenty-six. I was already out in the world, working. I’m a physical therapist. My first job was at Massachusetts General Hospital in Boston. I spent my early twenties helping accident and stroke victims reclaim their bodies. I loved Mass. General, loved saying the name and being part of some place big and important. Andrew and I married at my alma mater, Boston University, amid the cool stone walls of Marsh Chapel. We posed for photographs on the lawn, with the Charles River winking in the background. My parents didn’t mind that I bypassed our Catholic church back home, that Marsh Chapel was ecumenical or that Andrew was an agnostic.  Our reception was a simple wine and cheese affair in the chapel basement. “What about your children?” Grandpa asked. Old age had not dampened his zeal. He was a bent-over, bandy little man by then, but more consumed than ever by the singularity of his faith.

In the corner, a harp player’s fingers danced like angel’s wings. “Um, what about them?” I asked. I was wearing my mother’s antique, elbow-length gloves, the ones with all the buttons I had studied with awe as a child. They made holding onto my champagne flute tricky.

“How will you raise them? I mean, in what church?” Grandpa said.

I hadn’t given much thought to this, nor I was sure had Andrew. Children were a distant goal, and God wasn’t an issue. The college chaplain had spoken of God’s love, of the divine role in marriage, as Andrew and I exchanged vows. But these good tidings weren’t enough for Grandpa. He had to nail things down.

“Grandpa, look, these are Mom’s gloves,” I said. Then Andrew came up beside me. He was flushed, his face glowing and warm, his sandy hair damp at the temples in the June heat.

“Allen,” he smiled, taking my grandfather’s hand. “I’m so glad you could come today. I think Laura’s family is a little better represented than mine, I...”

“Well, I wouldn’t have missed it for the world, young man,” Grandpa cut in. “Seeing our baby girl take her vows...”

“Grandpa, please,” I said, squirming under ‘baby girl.’

“And besides,” he said, “I’m just happy to see you two finally making this thing legal in the eyes of God.”

I laughed and thought, let him stop here. For once, let him stop. Legal in the eyes of God. It sounded so absurd. As if the joy Andrew and I had brought each other had somehow been illegal up to this day. Grandpa stared into our faces. Andrew took my hand. “There’s someone I want you to meet, Laura. Stephen, the professor who directed my thesis.”

I put my glass down on a table.

“Laura and I were just discussing any children you might have,” Grandpa said. Andrew stopped. “Oh?”

“Yep, wondering what church you’ll raise them in and what you’ll tell them about God.”

I picked up my glass and drained the last drop of champagne. I knew Grandpa saw this meddling as his sacred duty. He was always trying to “plant seeds,” as he liked to say. If Grandma had heard him, she would have had a fit. But she was across the room, snapping photos of the cake.

Andrew just smiled. “The universe is infinite, Allen,” he said. “Why should we tell them anything?”

                                                

*  *  *

Some nights I can’t sleep. I sit up flicking through the cable TV channels. My cats huddle with me on the couch. I doze restlessly, on and off. In the morning. I rise and go to work where I lose myself in other people’s suffering. In the evening, I return to this co-op in the West Village, our beloved apartment. Andrew is still here, a faint echo of him anyway.

We moved to Manhattan after our wedding, because Andrew had a brilliant financial mind, and this is where people with brilliant financial minds sometimes come. What Andrew really had was a brilliant mathematical mind. He was well compensated, of course, but having a lot of money wasn’t something we particularly aspired to. We loved being part of the rush of New York, the vibrancy, the illumination you find only in places where anything is possible.

Andrew spent his days trying to predict the economy, based on mathematical models and theories of chance and probability. It was all quite complex. I didn’t understand most of it, but predicting the future intrigued me. My job is more concrete. I fix broken people, or try to. Anyway, here’s one thing Andrew could not predict: That death would come too soon, too violently, and that the anguish of loss would far outweigh any fears of the future.

Do I really need to tell the rest? How I was working at the hospital when the planes hit the towers? How I started running downtown like a deranged woman, calling Andrew’s name? We’ve all heard the stories. We’ve all seen the footage. Andrew was in the North Tower. His body was never recovered, not even a piece. He disappeared.

In the footage I’ve seen of that morning, New York harbor gleams in all its glory. As death rains down, the sky and sea glows a brilliant blue. I feel no connection, no collusion whatsoever, with these indifferent waters. And I wonder now why I ever did.

One week later, a priest showed up unannounced at my door. My parents had come to stay with me. They were grocery shopping.

“Can I help you?” I asked, catching sight of his white collar.

“Mrs. Hollins?”

“Yes?”

“I’m Father Michael Keniston. Your husband’s firm asked me to visit family members of employees who were lost last week.” He glanced down at his feet and took a deep breath. I liked him for doing that. “I’m so very sorry,” he said.

“Won’t you come in, Father,” I said. “Can I get you a cup of coffee or tea?”

We sat in the living room, near the windows where Andrew’s beloved spider plants crowd a wooden bench. We have a ridiculous number of spider plants in this apartment, because Andrew could not bear to throw out the little green offshoots they sprout. He didn’t want to kill them.

“Father,” I said, “We’re not practicing Catholics. I was raised in the church, but Andrew and I did not practice.”

“That doesn’t matter,” Keniston said. He was the sort of priest you see in old movies: ruddy-faced, Irish, with big hands and a bulbous nose. He looked a little like Karl Malden as the priest in “On the Waterfront.”

“Are you visiting everyone?” I said. “Hindus, Jews, Buddhists, atheists...”

“Whoever will let me in the door.”

“Have some refused?”

“Of course,” he said. “Can you blame them?” I liked him even more for saying that. He stared into his tea, and I saw that he had been doing this for days, tramping the stricken streets, navigating death and reaching out to grief. It had taken a toll on him.

“Is there anything I can do to help?” he said.

“No,” I said.

Relief released the tension around his eyes. “Nothing at all?” he said.

“I don’t see how.” I sipped my tea. Then suddenly there was something. “Maybe you can just listen to this, Father,” I said.

He nodded.

“Andrew and I have two cats. He brought them home one Christmas Eve from the shelter. We named them ‘Ebenezer’ and ‘Tiny Tim.’ They wake me in the night sometimes, demanding to be fed. I usually get up and give them a snack, so Andrew won’t be disturbed. He has earlier mornings than I do.” I placed my tea cup down on the table, because my hands had begun trembling, shaking on their own, as if they weren’t connected to me.

“I remember these moments,” I said. “I remember them so clearly. I am standing barefoot in the dark kitchen. An impatient tail brushes my leg. I pour out some feed, and the cats descend on it. I stand still a moment, listening to them snuffling in their bowls. The clock over the sink is ticking. I can smell Andrew’s warmth on my skin. His heart is beating; he is breathing and dreaming in the next room. I can feel him. These threads sort of reach through the dark, connecting us all to each other— me, Andrew, the cats. I am wrapped in a web of belonging. And I think, God, I don’t want this to end. I don’t want this to end.”

Father Keniston was watching me. Tears slid down my face, but I didn’t care.

“The weird part is, why was I afraid it would end? Isn’t that strange, Father? Wouldn’t you call that strange?”

He smiled and blinked rapidly. A muffled car horn rose from the street.

“What I would really like, if you don’t mind, is a shot of scotch,” he said.

                                                   

* * *

We held a memorial service for Andrew on the beach in Misquamicut, Rhode Island, his hometown. There was no body, no ashes, just the people who had known him standing on the packed sand while the setting sun streaked the horizon with orange dusk.

People took turns sharing their memories of Andrew. A balding man in a badly fitting blue blazer said something about Andrew’s intellect and compassion, how it’s unusual to find such an abundance of both in a single soul. He was vaguely familiar, like a forgotten friend from elementary school. Then I recognized him—Stephen, Andrew’s thesis advisor from M.I.T., the man I had scuttled across the Marsh Chapel basement to meet when my grandfather started embarrassing me at my wedding. Poor Grandpa. I left him standing there, worrying about his unborn grandchildren’s salvation. How could he have known there would be no need to worry.

My parents stood with me on the sand. My father had retired from commercial fishing. Now he worked for a recreational charter fishing company, ferrying tourists and sportsmen into deep waters on day trips. He used to take Andrew and me out when we visited. Grandma sat next to me. Most everyone stood, but a few folding chairs had been carried out for the old and infirm. Grandpa had been dead for almost two years, and Grandma was nearing eighty. Deep crevices crossed her forehead and fanned her eyes. Brown spots mottled her skinny arms. Her hair was translucent snow. She kept reaching out to take my hand, just to let me know she was there.

Stephen finished speaking, and someone else began. I couldn’t concentrate. The tide was coming in. In an hour, this spot would be under water. I thought of Joe Ormsby. He disappeared beneath the waves, too, while Grandpa clung to that upturned boat. In Grandpa’s mind, this was divine intervention, selective divine intervention. Grandpa, if you were here, I’d ask you to please be quiet. I’d turn away. I can hear your rationalizations, your warped logic. And if a God, any God, is out there listening, I’d like to tell Him: This is between you and me now. I’m not interested in all the old mumbo jumbo that came before or in the things other people say. You’ll have to find a new way.

The ocean had grown distant, its face opaque, hidden. Andrew loved the beach, but I didn’t want to imagine him here. In my mind, I transported him to New Hampshire, to the rocky mountains of my childhood. He stands atop a granite ridge, perched above tree-line like a man gazing down from heaven. The children we will never have are with him. I see a boy and a girl, suspended beyond the morass of vacant gods and empty piety, in splendid isolation.

Karen Guzman has published stories in a number of journals, including Many Mountains Moving and Words & Images, and is currently working on a novel. She has an MFA from George Mason University.