C AROLINE WAS PADDING, distracted and shoeless, through the weekday stillness of the empty church when she came upon Desmond’s wife standing on the other side of the back entrance. Framed by the double glass doors, Kim looked uncharacteristically small in an out-of-season winter jacket. Caroline offered up pastoral smile no. 6: Ironic Appreciation of Life’s Injustices Large and Small, as she pushed open the door.
“No doorbell,” she shrugged. “You have to knock on the glass.” Kim stepped inside, and Caroline gave her a hug. A warm hug, but not intimate; Caroline worried it smacked of tradecraft.
Kim had stopped by to ask Caroline to officiate Desmond’s funeral. The service would have to wait a few days, Kim explained as they walked to Caroline’s office, the morning light sepia-toned through the church’s textured yellow glass windows—this way Kim’s twin sons, juniors at Bowdoin College, would have more time with Desmond’s family, who would fly in from Ireland on Monday, the beginning of spring break. Desmond would be cremated.
This last detail, offered so matter-of-factly, sent a pulse of nausea through Caroline, and she had to steady herself against the arm of her chair as she sat down behind her office desk. A selfish response, she knew. But given the choice, Caroline would have subjected Desmond to the indignity of embalming in order to see, once more, the precise arrangement of moles against his windburnt cheeks, to have another shot at memorizing the startling Technicolor red of his beard, to see if the mortician allowed him to keep his hair too long.
“Of course,” Caroline said. She flashed pastoral smile no. 17: Sympathy for Those Enduring the Unendurable. “Whatever you’d like.”
At their standing biweekly coffee date, Caroline and Desmond would trade sermon notes, carry on meandering theological debates, or gossip. Churches were vipers’ nests of petty venality and politicking: the youth minister who used church funds to buy an online pornography subscription, the chair of the building and grounds committee staging a coup of the church council.
Desmond was good for this kind of talk; he had a wry sense of humor and kept an enviable emotional distance from his work. And he was smart, in the way that some men are tall—clumsily, self-consciously so. Caroline regretted that, because of their schedules, she could not hear him preach.
Not long after Desmond arrived in their smallish central Wisconsin university town five years ago, he reached out to Caroline and established a citywide interfaith service. Standing next to him at the first annual gathering—“I Sing the Mighty Power of God” was the opening hymn—Caroline was surprised to hear that Desmond had a piercing, muscular baritone voice. A bad church voice in some ways, not the voice of a team player. Desmond burst through the clamor of unison congregational warbling like a tree root through a sidewalk. He played at nonchalance when Caroline complimented him at their next meeting, but she knew he felt flattered.
“I had a choral scholarship,” he said, trying and failing not to smile.
He had broken his neck on Thursday. A quick death, Caroline heard, and a ludicrous one. Driving to Amherst Junction to see an ailing parishioner who had been moved home after a stroke, Desmond overturned his car on County Trunk B. A straight patch of road, no obstructions in sight. State troopers would put him at ten miles over the limit—fast, but not atypical for those isolated two-lane highways that cut seams through the vast corn and potato fields blanketing that part of the state. Most likely, Desmond drifted onto the shoulder in a moment of distraction and then overcorrected. The car, Caroline would later learn, was not even totaled. Desmond had been wearing his seatbelt.
Camus spoke about the absurdity of death in a car crash. Then he died in a car crash. Who told Caroline that?
Well, Desmond, of course. He was her only friend.
Kim stared at a framed picture on Caroline’s desk—a photograph of Caroline and her son standing outside his Pittsburgh apartment. Caroline had been about to leave for the airport after spending last Thanksgiving with Randall; the cab driver had taken the photograph. In the picture, her son looked as if he might be her brother—he loomed over her, the two of them smiling but rigid, the wiry, boyish body Caroline had grown into as a preadolescent buried gracelessly in a boxy, prairie-style dress she had bought the week before. Her hair, then as now, was a blunt gray bob.
After her divorce she had raised Randall alone, and with some difficulty. An only child of much older parents, she had little in the way of family support; she heard the word “Asperger’s” for the first time from Randall’s middle-school social worker with a mixture of relief and horror. Now, her son was a corporate accountant who spent his weekends playing elaborate fantastical computer games with strangers on the internet. He did not like to talk on the phone.
“Nice picture.” Kim nodded at the frame, sensing that she was being watched. Caroline watched her slide a sheaf of blonde hair behind her ear—a little messy but still lustrous. Kim swam every day at the YMCA, Caroline recalled; she had a sporty, Germanic build, just under six feet. Her skin, though a little puffy this morning from crying, was smooth and tan from weekend garden work.
Well, women were beautiful, some of them. It was a categorical distinction; Caroline had reconciled herself to it.
Desmond, like Caroline, had come to central Wisconsin from a so-called larger place—Galway, in his case, by way of seminary in Chicago. Caroline was from Pennsylvania and had been at Peace United Church of Christ for eight years. She learned of Desmond’s popularity not long after he arrived, when the Fiersbachs transferred their membership to Desmond’s church, Prine Presbyterian, a slightly larger congregation on the other side of the town’s historic Main Street district. Alison Fiersbach—a stay-at-home mom who’d grown up at Peace before getting a degree in theology—occasionally offered friendly, unsolicited criticism of Caroline’s sermons in the receiving line; Douglas was a terse, severe man who had trouble looking Caroline in the eye.
About a year after arriving in town, Desmond tried to start an ecumenical book club for local clergy. Desmond was witty—his charm alone probably secured the attendance of Father Ron from the Catholic Newman Center, Sarah Karstens from the Unitarian Universalist church on Algoma Street, and Caroline. For their first meeting, he picked Crime and Punishment. Within two months, only Caroline and Desmond remained.
At the wine bar where they came for their last meeting, Desmond conceded to Caroline that the book club had been a failure.
They would have to settle for friendship.
“Can I ask you,” Kim said, “what you and Desmond talked about when you met?”
“We were work friends. Mostly we complained about work.”
A silly lie, Caroline thought. She was not Desmond’s pastor—the only confidentiality she owed him was that of a friend. And yet she was wary of telling Kim what Desmond had said the previous week—that he was contemplating leaving the church. After twenty-five years of ministry, the liturgy Desmond spoke sounded preposterous to him. His faith had gone inert, like a word repeated by a perseverating child until its syllables blurred into nonsense. On the rare days Desmond didn’t feel like a huckster, he felt like a patsy. He no longer felt God’s eye on him, no longer had faith that such a feeling would return.
He wouldn’t tell his congregants, of course. He would merely cease baptizing them, serving them communion, leading them in prayer. He still had his psychology degree. Perhaps he could join a practice.
The intensity of Caroline’s anger surprised her. Across the coffee shop, people turned to glimpse her as she scolded him. His crisis was petulant and narcissistic. He was like the middle-aged man who, suddenly appalled at the tedium of a long marriage, decides the only way to keep his integrity is to run off with his secretary.
“You think you’re the first, Desmond?” she scolded. “Who cares what you feel?”
After their meeting, it had taken Caroline hours to stop arguing with Desmond in her head. For days, only her embarrassment kept her from emailing him. Should she laugh off her reaction? Apologize? Double down? And then on Thursday, while she mulled possible subject lines at her computer, Desmond hurtled north in his car to the place where he would be killed.
“He hadn’t been sleeping.” Kim straightened a pile of old bulletins on Caroline’s desk into a tidy stack as she spoke. “If something was wrong, Dessie brooded for weeks before talking to me. It drove me crazy.”
Caroline considered how she might interpret this. Was Caroline special to him, that he would share this with her? Or was his revelation merely a dry run for the more important one that would follow with his wife?
Smile no. 24 was an easy one, one to which she could default with little forethought: Solidarity with the Overwhelmed.
Caroline often argued with Desmond. They bickered about books and church polity. They debated politics and pop culture, what little of the latter Caroline bothered to follow. They even had a few old favorites, such as the sparring match they renewed every few months about the theology of atonement. Caroline took issue with the idea—basic to many Christians—that Jesus died for humanity’s sins. She winced at all the grisly, sanguinary metaphors—sanctified by the blood of Christ, washed in the blood of the lamb. Why was an act of brutal violence necessary to balance the ledger? The idea that a public execution was a cosmological prerequisite to God’s learning to love again struck Caroline as ghoulish and atavistic. It smacked of the capricious rule-mongering of bad science fiction. Why couldn’t God just forgive like the rest of us?
“In other words,” Desmond would needle her, “Jesus was the son of God, but his crucifixion was just happenstance? He might have, say, lived to ninety, penned a few bestsellers, and died of prostate cancer?”
“Why not?” Caroline would laugh. “God loves his children and dropped in to say so. There’s your pitch! Cut the gratuitous action sequence at the end.”
But Desmond always pushed back. “You’ve missed the point,” he would say, his unflustered certainty infuriating. “The transactional aspect of the crucifixion offends you—well, fine. Toss it. But Christianity needs the cross because talk is cheap. When Christ is crucified, that’s God getting fleeced in the same raw deal handed to the rest of us. The creator of the universe suffers with us—suffers all the grief and humiliation and debasement we do. It’s a radical notion. Forget some pie-in-the-sky afterlife—I mean, maybe it’s there, maybe it’s not. Who cares? The fact that God shows up, that he gets served the same miserable chow, puts up with the same crappy service, cracks a few jokes, sings a few songs, buys a round or two before being kicked to the curb with the rest of us—that’s what makes the whole thing palatable.”
Once, Caroline told Desmond, “You seem so angry when you talk about God.” And it was true—their theological arguments animated him, made him flush and vigorous. You seem like you’re in love, she thought, but did not say, the sentiment a hair too bold, too intimate for her to voice comfortably.
To which Desmond smiled and said, “God can take a punch.”
“I’m glad it’s you doing this,” Kim said. “A friend, I mean.”
After their meeting, Kim and Caroline shared another long hug at the back door—too long, Caroline thought. Caroline could read no chilliness here, no suspicion. And why should there be? In all their years of friendship, Caroline had touched Desmond only a few times, and then only to partake in the stagey embraces that were their profession’s equivalent of the politician’s handshake.
As she watched Kim cross the parking lot, Caroline was surprised to feel the electricity of panic move through her. Caroline recognized the feeling as she would a stranger with whom she had once been reluctantly intimate—an old cellmate, perhaps, or someone with whom she had shared a hospital room: It was the intimation of loneliness.
When Kim had driven away, Caroline returned to her office, where she wrote out a new Prayer of Confession and Assurance of Pardon for that week’s worship service. The wording gave her trouble, and she let the job swallow the whole afternoon.
Should Caroline tell Kim about Desmond’s dark night of the soul? Caroline prayed about it but couldn’t find any certainty. It didn’t help that her instincts for pastoral care were so often tin-eared. Caroline loved the people who worked and worshiped at Peace UCC—she helped them choose their wedding hymns and sat with them when they died; she worried over their problems when she was alone. And yet, she knew that among them she had a reputation for being difficult. Painfully shy despite her years at the pulpit, Caroline had developed a prickly, self-serious exterior. She was quick to anger; she often said the wrong thing.
“The sound of your voice makes me want to slap you,” an organist once told her, before the woman left for employment at another church. Caroline wished the woman had gone with the slap. All her life, Caroline fell into arguments as a teenager falls into infatuation—instinctively, haplessly, without cunning or premeditation, like a car perpetually listing to one side of the road. Early in her career, she was pushed out of a church near Philadelphia by a faction of church members who, she had come to believe after years of obsessive rumination, simply hadn’t liked her.
So she was quick to admit defeat at the thorniness of her problem—would the information harm Kim? Would she want it anyway? Should Caroline question her motives for telling this woman? What obligation did she have to her, anyway, a person not her friend, not her congregant?
On Saturday evening, Caroline was thinking about Kim when her phone rang. She was on her couch, intermittently trying to write the next morning’s sermon with the television on. A bad habit, this dependence on white noise, but Caroline had given up feeling guilty about it. She had to rifle through a pile of books and loose papers on the kitchen table to find the cordless phone, which she grabbed just before the fourth ring. On the line was a police sergeant she knew, on the lookout for an available police chaplain.
“Am I on call tonight?” Caroline asked, looking for the time on her laptop screen. In a little more than fourteen hours, she had to preach the sermon she had not yet written.
“Actually, Pastor Desmond from Prine is on the schedule. We hadn’t realized. I was hoping you could stand in, Reverend,” the sergeant said.
About an hour ago, the sergeant explained, a high school sophomore had killed herself. The girl had been spending the weekend with her father, recently divorced. He’d heard a gunshot, run upstairs, and found his daughter dead on the floor of her bedroom. The father was not careless, the sergeant emphasized—he’d locked his gun away. But neither was his daughter; she’d planned ahead and taken his key. Now, the mother wanted to see her daughter before the coroner took her. The officers didn’t like it, particularly. But rather than talk the woman out of it, someone had thought to call in Caroline, a ringer, schooled in the professional nuances of consolation.
When Caroline arrived at the house, the girl’s father had already left for the police station. Sergeant Ruder met Caroline on the lawn and told her what he knew of the story.
“She made up a lie about a friend at school. Her pals ostracized her. The note she left is a long apology.”
In the house, Caroline waited in the living room while an officer drove the girl’s mother to the house. Upon her arrival, per Sergeant Ruder’s request, Caroline would accompany her upstairs to see her daughter. If there was some protocol designed to keep Caroline from the teeth of such a moment, she had forgotten it. The exact responsibilities of a small-town police chaplain were still unclear to Caroline, but this at least resembled the other tasks she’d been given in its utter, banal uniqueness, its unwillingness to yield to preparation or normative advice. She supposed when the time came, she would wing it.
“Tell me the girl’s name again,” Caroline said as the headlights of the squad car striped the living room.
The girl’s name was Emily, Sergeant Ruder said. Her parents had divorced last summer.
“Infidelity,” he added, and even in a small town, Caroline wondered why he would mention such a thing. Like many small-town cops, Sergeant Ruder was earnest and kind, pear-shaped and a little dim. Caroline thought she remembered him playing Santa Claus years ago at some holiday event. Probably he became a cop telling himself he wanted to be a good person, having no way of knowing what such a thing meant. Now, in his mid-forties, he was stuck with the job. As the front doorknob rattled, he turned to Caroline and whispered: “Mom’s name is Trish.”
Trish entered the living room in a rumpled pantsuit. She was some kind of hospital administrator, working the weekend, Sergeant Ruder had said. Caroline guessed she’d come home from work and balled her clothes in the corner an hour before the phone rang. Her thick, bleach-blonde hair looked oily in the manner of someone who had endured a long day and hadn’t expected to leave the house again. In Trish’s furtive, vacant politeness Caroline saw someone trying hard to look normal, like a drunk pretending to be sober. She pursed her lips slightly every few moments, and Caroline wondered if she always carried this tic with her. Congregational face no. 672, Caroline thought: Woman Whose Teenage Daughter Has Just Killed Herself. There is no other occasion for this face.
Caroline told Trish what to expect upstairs, essentially softening the warning that Sergeant Ruder gave Caroline a few minutes earlier.
“I’ll go with you,” she said. “When you’re ready.”
Trish made for the bedroom without so much as a nod. She moved with the distracted urgency of a person checking the lights in a house before going on a trip. Caroline followed a few feet behind her. Sergeant Ruder stayed downstairs.
Later that night, Caroline would not be able to recall the exact order of all that occurred in the girl’s bedroom. She would remember Emily lying supine on top of her bedspread, her long-sleeved T-shirt covered in tiny cartoon elephants. (Congregational face no. 1,025: Fifteen-Year-Old Girl Who Has Just Shot Herself in the Head.) A Rorschach blood pattern on the carpeted floor made her think officers had moved Emily to the bed.
She would remember a few stray book titles from Emily’s shelves—Graceling, Eleanor and Park, Divergent—none of the soothing Madeleine L’Engle or Judy Blume of Caroline’s youth.
She would remember the mounting soreness in her legs as she stood watching, wondering about the best, the most reassuring place for her to stand. She remembered Trish stroking her daughter’s hair. Above all, she would remember that in her daughter’s room, Trish said three things.
She said: “Love.”
She said: “Oh.”
She said: “What did you do?”
She spoke these things with a wounded, prayerful intensity, again and again, switching the order, varying the inflection. The words seemed to float above Trish, to weave themselves into a shroud that occluded her from Caroline even as she stood mere feet away.
When they had been there for a little more than ten minutes, Trish set her daughter’s head carefully on a blue pillow. Caroline, her legs twitching, quietly stepped to the bed and sat next to Trish. Trish appeared startled; she blinked at the clerical collar Caroline had fumblingly put on in the car—Caroline only wore it as a chaplain, never in church, where everyone already knew who she was.
She squinted at Caroline for several moments, as if she were struggling to remember something.
“You,” she whispered. Trish said it again before Caroline thought to respond: “You.”
Caroline moved to take Trish’s hand in her own, but before she could, Trish raised her fist and brought it down hard on Caroline’s sternum.
Caroline made a noise perched between a cry and a gasp.
“You,” Trish said, her voice marbled by tears. “You, you.”
Caroline heard herself whisper the words before they appeared in her mind: “I’m sorry.” Then Caroline put her hand against her chest; already it bloomed with pain. She said it again, her voice shaking: “I’m sorry.”
And then Caroline was crying. She cried from shock or from pain, or maybe anger. Grief, or guilt. She cried selfishly, totally, the way an injured child cries, the sobs seeming to leap ahead of her, not so much signaling grief as discovering it, dredging it up and giving it shape, and all of it happening so quickly that Caroline felt she could barely keep abreast of it. If someone had asked Caroline why she was crying, the question would seem less unanswerable than insane, as if posed by a Martian. The crying was a complete act, like vomiting, or an orgasm—she gave herself to it so completely it became a forgetting, and when she emerged from it, wrapped in Trish’s arms, the two of them like lost children, Sergeant Ruder stood sheepishly at the door, a look on his face that signaled to Caroline a sense of relief that he had called a chaplain.
They walked out of the room in silence, a man and a woman from the coroner’s office waiting at the bottom of the stairs like prom dates, and Caroline stood with Trish as they watched the pair noisily maneuver a stretcher up the narrow staircase to the second floor.
While they waited, Sergeant Ruder put his arm briefly on Caroline’s shoulder behind Trish’s back and mouthed the word, “Thanks.”
When the people from the coroner’s office had carried the body down the stairs, Trish stopped them at the front door.
“Wait,” she said. She hovered over the stretcher for the better part of a minute, her eyes searching, as if she were running through an inventory in her mind. The woman—short and stocky, in her early thirties, her dirty blond hair pulled back in a tight bun—set her hand against Trish’s forearm and waited for Trish to meet her eye.
“Ma’am,” the woman said gently. “I need to take care of your daughter now.”
Trish nodded and stepped back, and the woman and her partner carried Emily out of the house and into the ambulance.
Later that night, when Caroline had exhausted herself replaying the few minutes she spent with Trish in her daughter’s room, the memory of the young woman from the coroner’s office came to her buoyed on a wave of envy.
I need to take care of your daughter now.
Caroline wondered: Had this woman used the line before? It was exactly what Trish had needed to hear. Caroline was amazed. The woman was a natural. Caroline, on the other hand, had felt no confidence, no wisdom or grace in Emily’s room. All she had been able to do, in fact, was sit there with Trish and blubber.
Caroline awoke just after eight, less than an hour before her nine o’clock family service. She had fallen asleep around six a.m. to the sound of birds, the sky already blue felt at the edges of her bedroom window. If she had finished her sermon the previous night, she’d forgotten it already. Maybe coffee would bring it back to her.
Caroline wasn’t worried. She sometimes felt outmatched by the demands of pastoral care, but Caroline knew that after decades of practice, she had become an excellent preacher. She could at least admit this to herself this morning without fear of jinxing herself. Go ahead, she thought, say it: I’m good at preaching. Probably it was the reason she still had her job.
Early the previous evening, Caroline had gotten a call from Kim about some funeral business. During their conversation, Kim let slip that Desmond had a sister who had drowned as a teenager. It was one of the many things—maybe endless things, Caroline admitted to herself—that she hadn’t known about her friend.
Her coffee made, Caroline pushed open the screen door to her backyard. She saw clouds of pollen falling in slow-motion bursts from the pine trees that fenced her property.
Taking a sip from her mug, Caroline decided she would tell Kim about Desmond’s crisis of faith. Caroline loved Desmond, after all, and she would want to know. Maybe Kim would feel the same way.
Was it possible Kim might become Caroline’s friend? You couldn’t really be friends with your congregants. But Kim wasn’t a congregant. No matter—Caroline would try to do right by her and let the chips fall where they would.
Though it didn’t seem likely—Kim wasn’t Caroline’s type. Which is to say, Kim was a person, a person not Desmond. People had always been so difficult for Caroline—those avatars cradling their flickering sparks of the divine against the wind, who so often hid those sparks from you out of pure spite, or tried to blow yours out. Who, even in the best of circumstances, might disappear at a moment’s notice. She wondered how long she had stayed at her church, in a job that rarely came naturally to her, and that only occasionally made her happy, because she was afraid she would lose her only friend if she left it.
Remembering Desmond, Caroline felt warmed by a gust of anger. She breathed in the bracing October air and watched the sun ignite the dew on the grass.
When she exhaled, she heard herself speak the words before she had thought them—she spoke aloud, as if to Desmond, or to herself, maybe, or to God.
“Oh,” she said. “Love. What did you do?”
The Image archive is supported in part by an award from the National Endowment for the Arts.