Sanctuary Ridge #10

nails and thorns

This episode has been split into two videos, #10A and #10B. The text is all one piece below the 10B video.

Episode #10A

Episode #10B

The Sanctuary is Veiled (Late May 2019)

Back on Sanctuary Ridge, David Peterson and Homer Bardly sat out on the red brick patio on blue Adirondack chairs. From there, where the level ground dropped off into a series of hills, they could see Doctor Donto’s lake below. It was a cool evening, and the lake glowed orange as the sun was going down. The breeze gave the water a corrugated texture.

David had given up on the cigarettes, but a cigar and bourbon pleased him.  Homer was practicing his lines for Agamemnon, an ancient Greek tragedy he was working on with some military veterans from St. Andrew’s Retirement Village.  He ended with:

He who learns must suffer
And even in our sleep
Pain that cannot forget

Falls drop by drop upon the heart,
And in our own despair,
Against our will
Comes wisdom to us
by the awful grace of God.

“That’s Aeschylus,” Homer said. “You may not have liked RFK, but you gotta admire the fact that he read that to an inner-city crowd the night Dr. King was shot.”

“That I did not know,” David said as he set down his stogey and applauded. “I never dreamed I’d actually like listening to this kind of thing.”

“You should see what these sad stories do to some of the guys. For some, it’s the first time since the war that the specifics of their trauma was articulated.”

“You do good work, my friend.”

“Thanks for listening,” Homer said and sat down.

After looking down at the patio bricks and pausing, David said, “Jacob’s not answering my calls; It’s been more than two weeks.”

“As I’m sure you remember, I was aloof before I came to my senses. Though he wrestles, I’m hopeful for Jacob.”

“I was so mad at you back then… I guess I’m hopeful too,” David continued, “but I’ve begun to think I really hurt him. Not because I voted to fire him, though. That was one thing I did right.” He passed the Maker’s Mark to Homer. “It started when I read that “O’Connor story—Revelation—you suggested. I realize now that was the story Naomi talked about and begged me to read. I’m having trouble sleeping. My daily devotional got under my skin, too.”

Homer relit his cigar. “I didn’t know you did devotionals.”

“I have since I’ve gone back to Our Lady of Peace. Father Enders urged me to try a month in the Psalms. Anyway, it’s the psalm where my very namesake King David has this intense confession, and he pleads for mercy. I realized I’ve never pleaded for mercy. Kinda pisses me off, to be honest. But a part of me thinks if I face up to whatever it is I’ve done, a weight will be lifted; I could die in peace.”

The Sunday after he saw Father Enders at the cemetery, David paid a visit to the church he once grudgingly attended with Naomi over forty years ago. Now, the “smells and bells,” as he used to refer to the ceremonies, were comforting. Memories of his wife’s best years were triggered. She loved the “splendor” of the Mass. The bread and wine plunged her into a “sensory reenactment of the passion of the Christ.” Naomi would sometimes arrive under a dark cloud but leave euphoric as she pondered the blood of Christ shed for her. But David would rather have been walking his land on a Sunday morning. After Naomi’s funeral, he never went back.

In the grief that swallowed him after her death, David was led in a direction that surprised even him. His old friend Greg Germaine invited him to his very informal “bible study.” There were no bells or smells here—just a group of men discussing scripture over beers. A few months later, Greg launched Soldiers for Christ Academy, a new kind of church. Stripped of traditions, liturgies, and hell, it was informal, casual in dress, positive in outlook, and masculine.  In his enthusiasm, David made Scarlett and Jacob attend with him. He saw it as a way his family could heal.

A week after his cancer diagnosis, David went to see Germaine, now 68. After forty-three years attending SOC as it was now called—and thirty years on the board of elders—David announced he was resigning. “It’s not just because of my cancer, Greg. I’ve been exhausted for a long time with the pace of this ministry. I feel like I’ve avoided something in all my supposed service. I hope you understand. Nothing against you, but I’m going back to Our Lady—the Mother Church.”

Greg moved from the highbacked seat behind his desk over next to David. He embraced David and wept. “Of course, I understand. You’re my closest friend. I’m here for whatever you need.”

With Greg’s graciousness, David could not bring himself to tell him he longer wanted to give his property to SOC.  That would have to wait.

***

For Rebecca, the weight of her work with dying people seemed to multiply since David told her about his sickness. Though her mother seemed better, she couldn’t help thinking about burying her in the not-too-distant future. My last decades will be filled with burials. I can’t do this. On Monday that week, then again on Tuesday, Rebecca approached the door of St. Andrews church at lunchtime only to walk away.

On Wednesday she summoned the nerve to enter the cathedral. To her relief, the earnest woman with the cross was not there to greet her.  She passed a row where a small and frail man with an oxygen tank sat in the pew next to his walker.  He seemed familiar, but she couldn’t place him.

Rebecca reached for the red book on the pew in front of her. The Book of Common Prayer. Having never read it, she whispered to the man behind her with the oxygen. “Excuse me. Is there something in the book about praying for the sick?”

“Yes, I’ll show you… Here it is. Are you…” 

“No. Someone I love dearly has terminal cancer.”

Looking toward the floor, she found the cushion that folded down and knelt on it. She held the book and lip-synced the prayer, then closed her swollen eyes.

A man in a white robe came to the front and began to speak. “Good afternoon. Today’s reading is from the Gospel of John when Jesus, after his resurrection, appeared to Thomas, the one who doubted.” After he recited the text, apparently from memory, he said, “Notice Jesus did not preach against Thomas’s skepticism. In fact, he didn’t preach at all. He invited Thomas to come near and touch his scars. Did you ever wonder, as I do, why are his scars are still there? Don’t we imagine perfection and beauty as something without wounds or blemishes?”

Hearing this overwhelmed Rebecca. She feared she might lose control and fall to the floor. She tried to suppress the conflicting feelings that rose up in her.

The man behind her heard her sobs and leaned forward. “Ma’am, are you ok?”

“No, but I need to go.” As she left, she looked again at the frail man. She remembered how she knew him. He was Mr. Louis, one of the residents of the retirement village. She did not know that he was Thomas Aquinas Louis, that former staunch priest, now 92. Nor did she yet know he lived with the burden that he ruined the former incarnation of St. Andrew’s community.

When she got to her car, Rebecca’s tears turned to singing for the first time in years. The chorus had something to do with “beauty to ashes.”

***

10B

On Friday, in the late afternoon,Rebecca headed over to Ruth’s place, about a mile north of Sanctuary Ridge, on a narrow road that ran above the PA turnpike in a parallel fashion. When she arrived, she received a text from Ruth: I’m in the shop. It’s unlocked.

Rebecca walked into Ruth’s shop, which looked like a gallery of sorts. To her right was a wall covered with horizontal tongue and groove, grayed barn wood. Hanging from the wall at eye level were framed vintage sepia photographs of dry places in the American Southwest.  Above the prints was a Georgia O’Keefe watercolor—the center of a white and pink flower—that some of her customers thought to be pornographic.

To the right of the painting was a braid of gray, coarse, hair hanging from the horn of a bleached cow skull. The thick woven hair was almost the length of the signed Hank Aaron baseball bat mounted next to it. On the other horn of the skull hung a round cloth band about an inch wide, white, but stained and unraveling. It appeared to be a collar.  

Directly across from where Rebeca entered the wall was covered with a large mirror. Below the mirror was a shelf with combs, scissors, razors, cigars, pipes, and a bottle of Vodka. The room smelled of oils, tonics, and smoke. There was an oversized chair, red leather with a metal footrest.

Ruth was sitting in the barber chair with a hot towel on her head. She held a soapstone pipe to her mouth and filled it with Captain Black. Pulling up a chrome lighter, she said, “Hi, Becca. Welcome to ‘Ruth’s Reveals.'” She took a couple of puffs, then held the pipe in her mouth and lathered her head with green gel that foamed. Seeing that Rebecca was looking at the braid on the wall, she said, “Yes, that was mine. I’ll tell you about it some time.”

Starting at the back of her neck, Ruth took a straight razor to her skull without looking in the mirror. And no blood was shed.

“This is my weekly ritual,” she said. “I’d love to claim it’s because of my feminism—after all, I call myself a ‘feminist liturgist’—but this not a statement against male objectification. Just a reminder to be faithful to the covenant. Some people are sober curious. I’m monastic curious.” She wiped off her head with another steamed towel and stood up to hug Rebecca.

“This place is really cool,” Rebecca said, turning to the wall opposite the mirror. There was a charcoal drawing of a canyon with a calligraphy caption that looked backwards unless you sat in the chair and faced the mirror. It read, “Out of Zion shines forth beauty.” Toward the corner was an impressionist style painting in vivid pastel colors labeled “Santa Fe, Our Lady of Guadalupe.”

Ruth’s ears were adorned with multiple silver hoops, and her nose had a gold post. She was tall and plump. Her faded and tight denim overalls without a shirt kind of announced her flat chest. A tattoo on her neck was in thick Hebrew letters. “It says, ‘Shalom,’ named after the farm where my father grew up,” as she had told Rebecca a few months ago. “If you’re interested, I’ll tell you about the notion of peace Shalom signifies.”

“I need to cancel my trim,” Rebecca said. “My mom really wants to do it, and I think it will help her feel useful and loved.”

“I get it. I do,” Ruth said and set her pipe on the shelf next to the razors. “But do have a seat and share with me.”

Rebecca sat in the big red chair, and Ruth pumped the chair until Rebecca was closer to eye level, then turned it so she faced the mirror. Ruth stood behind her and ran her hands through Rebecca’s long hair. “So soft.”

“Thanks.” Rebecca blushed and thought about her expensive conditioner. She turned her eyes to the cow skull and the collar. “Not to be too abrupt, but you were a priest once out west, right?”

“Yup. Our family is ‘Christ-haunted,’ as my dad says. I was an Episcopal priest… in the desert of Utah by Zion Canyon… I was good at it…. Then I broke Jim’s nose. Yea, I found out he was sleeping with another woman. He denied it, but I knew he couldn’t handle the double mastectomy. He wouldn’t even look at my chest. But I wasn’t about to get fake boobs.”

“I didn’t mean to push you to be personal,” Rebecca said, trying to read Ruth’s face in the mirror.

“You’re fine. Cutting hair is like being a priest, and this chair is often a confessional. Some people come in very nervous. They want to make a change. They entrust me with their hair, but they worry they will become vulnerable, naked. Many of the guys that come in are so sure their look is drawing women to adore them. It’s hilarious.” Ruth reached again for her pipe. “I see my role as helping people reveal themselves.  You can hide behind your hair, or you can reveal yourself through your hair.”

“I hear you,” Rebecca said. “So, I wanted to ask, do you trust clergy people? I’m very guarded after what happened.”

“Some. If they’re honest about their personal shit and are aware of their ignorance. Nothing is more dangerous than a person who doesn’t know what they don’t know.”

Rebecca met Ruth’s eyes in the mirror. “A couple of days ago, I heard a pastor or whatever talk about the scars of Christ. He seemed to say the wounds are part of the beauty. That’s why God didn’t remove them. I never heard that before. And his tone made me think he’d been wounded but somehow consoled.”

Ruth came around the chair and stood in front of Rebecca, looking directly at her, but spoke slowly with a gentle tone. “It sounds like you’ve got a story to tell.”

“I do, she said and reached for Ruth’s hand. “But I’m not ready. Is that cool?”

“I’m a respecter of boundaries, honey. We’ll talk when and if you feel ready.”

***

After Sunday dinner with Homer and Ruth, David and Rebecca walked up the hill where he once struggled to grow corn, past the old oak, the tallest tree on the Ridge, and into a meadow full of yellow wildflowers. David aired his concern about Jacob’s whereabouts again. “Somehow, I’ve got to make peace with him before I go.”

“You will,” she said.

“We better head back,” David said. “I’ll take us back on another path.” He pointed out a tree where Jacob had crashed his ’69 Camaro when he was fifteen. “At least the tree recovered.”

Rebecca continued to listen as David told her about Dr. Thaden’s suggestion that he try chemotherapy. “It may not save you, David, but it should buy you some time—in case your son comes.”  

As they came down off the hill, the house was in view, now in the shadows. They could see at the bend in the driveway where the smaller light green clapboard house sat. Jacob once rented it. Rebecca said, “I’ve been reliving that night when he lit that fire. I was so ashamed of him.”

“That was a terrible night, David added. “I could see the fire from up here, so I called him. He just screamed at me. The next day, he acted as if nothing happened.”

Rebecca stopped and looked up at David. “I sometimes regret telling my counselor about the state of our marriage. I probably should have gone straight to Jacob. Maybe if I’d been more merciful, we’d have mended.”

“Mercy,” David said, his eyes scanning the two houses. “A word I threw around all my life like a cliché. There’s something strong and tender in it.”

***

On Tuesday morning, David had a chemo treatment. As the afternoon wore on, he felt sick, so he went to lay in his bed. When he woke an hour later, he went into the kitchen where Homer was preparing a rack of baby back ribs with his spicy rub.

“Looks good, but I probably won’t have a whole slab,” David said. “Not much appetite.”

“Jacob called earlier, asking for Scarlett’s number. I found it on your Rolodex.”

“Did he say where he was?”

“No. To tell you the truth, he was short. And he slurred some.”

**

For the last two weeks, using his lack of a cell phone as an excuse, Jacob had been on a detour—a detour of diversion and drinking that further dulled his senses. He wanted to find Carrie in Santa Fe, but on the way, he stopped in Utah at Zion National Park. He had fond memories of a trip there with Ruth when he was eighteen.

He parked Milagro and took a shuttle to the Virgin River Narrows, a trail that eventually continued into the water of the Virgin. Though his camera pack was heavy and the water up to his waist, he proceeded into the canyon. At places, it was so narrow he could almost touch each side. An hour into the foray, Jacob encountered the rushing water of a flash flood. While he did manage to get to higher ground to wait it out, he lost all his equipment in the deluge.

When he got to Santa Fe, he called his father, hoping to get Scarlett’s number so he could ask her for money to buy a new phone. To his relief, Homer answered and gave him the number. Scarlett sent him $2000, so he came out of the AT&T store with a good phone, and all his contacts were restored by the helpful sales rep. “That’s why we stress backing it up.”

Jacob approached Carrie’s apartment door without calling her. To his surprise, she let him in. She seemed warm, even apologizing for how she stormed off in El Portal. Jacob told her he would be ready to move in with her as soon as he returned from visiting his father. They made love and all seemed back to normal. But after they got dressed and had beers, Carrie told him she no longer wanted to move in together. “I just want to be friends who hook up at times. And I’m starting to make other such friends—you know—down at the Coyote. I’m releasing you from the pressure, Jacob.”

He tried to sound agreeable, but he was crushed. He spent the next few days in Santa Fe drinking, and cursing at the statue of St. Francis at the Basilica, an imposing and unavoidable landmark in the heart of the old city.

 

 

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