The sky broken by the bare oaks and elms of New Prospect was full of moist promise, a pair of frontal systems grayly colluding to deliver a white Christmas, when Russ Hildebrandt made his morning rounds among the homes of bedridden and senile parishioners in his Plymouth Fury wagon. A certain person, Mrs. Frances Cottrell, a member of the church, had volunteered to help him bring toys and canned goods to the Community of God that afternoon, and though he knew that only as her pastor did he have a right to rejoice in her act of free will, he couldn’t have asked for a better Christmas present than four hours alone with her.
After Russ’s humiliation, three years earlier, the church’s senior minister, Dwight Haefle, had upped the associate minister’s share of pastoral visitations. What exactly Dwight was doing with the time Russ saved him, besides taking more frequent vacations and working on his long-awaited volume of lyric poetry, wasn’t clear to Russ. But he appreciated his coquettish reception by Mrs. O’Dwyer, an amputee confined by severe edema to a hospital bed in what had been her dining room. He appreciated the routine of being of service, especially to those who, unlike him, couldn’t remember one thing from three years ago. At the nursing home in Hinsdale, where the mingling smells of holiday pine wreaths and geriatric feces reminded him of Arizona high-country latrines, he handed old Jim Devereaux the new church membership face-book they’d been using as a prompt for conversation and asked if Jim remembered the Pattison family. To a pastor feeling reckless with Advent spirit, Jim was an ideal confidant, a wishing well in which a penny dropped would never hit bottom and resound.
“Pattison,” Jim said.
“They had a daughter, Frances.” Russ leaned over his parishioner’s wheelchair and paged to the Cs. “She goes by her married name now—Frances Cottrell.”
He never spoke her name at home, even when it would have been natural to, for fear of what his wife might hear in his voice. Jim bent closer to the picture of Frances and her two children. “Oh … Frannie? I remember Frannie Pattison. What ever happened to her?”
“She’s back in New Prospect. She lost her husband a year and a half ago—terrible thing. He was a test pilot for General Dynamics.”
“Where is she now?”
“She’s back in New Prospect.”
“Oh, huh. Frannie Pattison. Where is she now?”
“She came back home. She’s Mrs. Frances Cottrell now.” Russ pointed at her picture and said it again. “Frances Cottrell.”
She was meeting him in the First Reformed parking lot at two thirty. Like a boy who couldn’t wait for Christmas, he got there at 12:45 and ate his sack lunch in the car. On his bad days, of which there’d been many in the past three years, he resorted to an elaborate detour—into the church through its function hall, up a stairwell and down a corridor lined with stacks of banished Pilgrim Hymnals, across a storage room for off-kilter music stands and a crèche ensemble last displayed eleven Advents ago, a jumble of wooden sheep and one meek steer, graying with dust, with whom he felt a sad fraternity, then down a narrow staircase where only God could see and judge him, into the sanctuary via the “secret” door in the paneling behind the altar, and finally out through the sanctuary’s side entrance—to avoid passing the office of Rick Ambrose, the director of youth programming. The teenagers who massed in the hallway outside it were too young to have personally witnessed Russ’s humiliation, but they surely knew the story of it, and he couldn’t look at Ambrose without betraying his failure to follow their Savior’s example and forgive him.
Today, however, was a very good day, and the halls of First Reformed were still empty. He went directly to his office, rolled paper into his typewriter, and considered his unwritten sermon for the Sunday after Christmas, when Dwight Haefle would be vacationing again. He slouched in his chair and combed his eyebrows with his fingernails, pinched the bridge of his nose, touching a face whose angular contours he’d learned too late were attractive to many women, not just his wife, and imagined a sermon about his Christmas mission to the South Side. He preached too often about Vietnam, too often about the Navajos. To boldly speak, from the pulpit, the words Frances Cottrell and I had the privilege—to pronounce her name while she sat listening from the fourth row of pews and the congregation’s eyes, perhaps enviously, connected her with him—was a pleasure, alas, foreclosed by his wife, who read his sermons in advance and would also be sitting in a pew, and who didn’t know that Frances was joining him today.
On his office walls were posters of Charlie Parker and his sax, Dylan Thomas and his fag; a smaller picture of Paul Robeson framed alongside a handbill for Robeson’s appearance at the Judson Church in 1952; Russ’s diploma from the Biblical Seminary in New York; and a blown-up photo of him and two Navajo friends in Arizona, in 1946. Ten years ago, when he’d assumed the associate ministry in New Prospect, these artfully chosen assertions of identity had resonated with the teenagers whose development in Christ had been part of his brief. But to the kids who now thronged the church’s hallways in their bell-bottoms and bib overalls, their bandannas, they signified only obsolescence. The office of Rick Ambrose, him of the stringy black hair and the glistening black Fu Manchu, had a kindergarten feel to it, the walls and shelves bedecked with the crudely painted effusions of his young disciples, the special meaningful rocks and bleached bones and wildflower necklaces they’d given him, the silk-screened posters for fundraising concerts with no discernible relation to any religion Russ recognized. After his humiliation, he’d hidden in his office and ached amid the fading totems of a youth that no one but his wife found interesting anymore. And Marion didn’t count, because it was Marion who’d impelled him to New York, Marion who’d turned him on to Parker and Thomas and Robeson, Marion who’d thrilled to his stories of the Navajos and urged him to heed his calling to the ministry. Marion was inseparable from an identity that had proved to be humiliating. It had taken Frances Cottrell to redeem it.
“My God, is this you?” she’d said on her first visit to his office, the previous summer, as she studied the photo from the Navajo reservation. “You look like a young Charlton Heston.”
She’d come to Russ for grief counseling, another part of his brief and not his favorite, since his own most grievous loss to date was of his boyhood dog, Skipper. He’d been relieved to hear that Frances’s worst complaint, a year after her husband’s fiery death in Texas, was a sense of emptiness. At his suggestion that she join one of the First Reformed women’s circles, she flicked her hand. “I’m not going to coffee with the ladies,” she said. “I know I’ve got a boy starting high school, but I’m only thirty-six.” Indeed, she was sagless, pouchless, flabless, lineless, an apparition of vitality in a snug paisley sleeveless dress, her hair naturally blond and boyishly short, her hands boyishly small and square. It was obvious to Russ that she’d be remarried soon enough—that the emptiness she felt was probably little more than the absence of a husband—but he remembered his anger when his mother had asked him, too soon after Skipper’s passing, whether he might like another dog.
There was, he told Frances, one particular women’s circle, different from the others, guided by Russ himself, that worked with members of First Reformed’s inner-city partner church, the Community of God. “The ladies don’t coffee,” he said. “We paint houses, clear brush, haul trash. Take the elderly to their appointments, help kids with their homework. We do it every other Tuesday, all day. And, let me tell you, I look forward to those Tuesdays. It’s one of the paradoxes of our faith—the more you give to the less fortunate, the fuller you feel in Christ.”
“You say his name so easily,” Frances said. “I’ve been going to Sunday service for three months, and I’m still waiting to feel something.”
“Not even my own sermons have moved you.”
Copyright © 2021 by Jonathan Franzen