Erin Crenshaw, 46 and mother of three, worried sometimes that she had never been given the ability to know. She had the ability to guess and the ability to pretend, which together fooled people sometimes. But certainty, discernment, “the inner light,” as the Quakers who lived a few blocks from her when she was growing up called it — those she feared she’d never have.
She thought about this as she drove from the blue house, the nice one with the unfinished basement in a good suburb that she and Harry had bought three years ago, into the city, into Minneapolis, to the stone church by the creek where, in the spring, when the water was high from snowmelt, they baptized kids in white robes. She was driving to a meeting of the vocational circle at the church. She was wearing the blue parka she’d bought when she’d moved from Denver because Harry’d got a new job teaching electrical engineering at Macalester. Feathers were sticking out of a tear in the right arm, which she picked at as she turned left on Wooddale and tried to find parking. The sharp end of a feather stabbed the tip of her finger and it started to bleed, so she put both hands on the wheel and told herself she was going to focus on her breathing exercises as she parallel-parked behind a white Suburban with a bumper sticker promoting the public schools.
It had been Harry’s idea for her to go. Harry was the religious one. It came with the territory: Back at Rice, he was the guy who read Proust and harbored no ambitions greater than being an electrician. He attended church and showed up to protests and often spoke with pride about a period of three months in 1998 when he had spent no money whatsoever. He’d seen the ad in the bulletin. C’mon, honey, he’d said. Just try it.
Out of the car, walking through the November night air, still and clear save for the breath-fog of the couples walking down 50th under the strings of Christmas lights, Erin saw two women she’d met when she’d first moved here. She’d met them at a potluck dinner; they were best friends. The one on the right, the one in the black peacoat, with the strange blond hair that floated: Her son was in ninth grade, the same as James, Erin’s son, and once in a while they talked about that. She’d thought, when she met these women, that she’d be friends with them. But at coffee hour, after Erin exchanged pleasantries with them, they would always pull that little trick of theirs, to let her know without dropping their kind Midwestern affect that she should move along, and once she wandered away to find someone else to stand near for a few minutes until Harry was ready to leave, she could faintly hear them resume their own conversation.
Erin’s sadness was quiet, the sort of sadness you usually find in otherwise-empty cars and on the couch alone after everyone else has gone to bed and the house is still except for the rattle of the air conditioner. The women went in the stone doors of the church, and Erin made sure they were just far enough ahead of her that they didn’t have to hold the door.
* * *
There were 10 chairs in a circle in the little chapel, the one that overlooked the creek, the one with the very English painting of Saint Francis hanging over the small altar. Father Ben, the vicar (as he referred to himself), was presiding. He was young and lanky and kind, but he believed a little too fully in his healing powers. They were doing introductions.
“Hi,” she said. “I’m Erin. I’m from Chicago, originally. I’ve been a member here for two years now, and I have three sons — 11h grade, ninth, and fifth. I’m a college counselor at the moment.”
“We don’t say that here, Erin,” Father Ben said.
“Don’t say what?” Erin asked.
“We are not our jobs. I’m Ben Knudsen. I work as a vicar. You try it, now,” he said, gesturing.
“I’m Erin Crenshaw,” she said, again. “I work as a college counselor. For now.”
“Thanks,” he said. “Tell us a little more about yourself, Erin.”
“Okay,” she said. “Um. I majored in English in college. I guess I figured I could do whatever I wanted if I were an English major, huh? What an idiot.” She laughed, and looked around the circle to see if the others would laugh with her. They were barely-recalled faces, people she’d seen in the shadows on Sundays, the type that despite herself she felt didn’t quite belong at an Episcopal church: the older man in a polo shirt with the tattoos up his arms, the woman with the big gold cross around her neck that she fiddled with. They all shifted their weight in the chairs, and it hurt Erin when they, people who from what she could tell were far from being part of the social machinery, gave only sympathy chuckles.
She continued. “I’ve worked as a bike messenger. An oyster shucker. I delivered flowers. I was —”
“Worked as,” Father Ben corrected.
“— an adjunct English professor for a year or two. I don’t know. I’ve been telling myself I need to be happy with what I’m doing, and I don’t think I am. I don’t think I ever have been.”
“Are you sure?” Father Ben asked. “That’s a blanket statement. Remember. We’re more than our blanket statements.”
“Yeah,” Erin said, trying her best not to bristle. “I’m sure. I mean, there’ve been happy moments. Don’t get me wrong.” Fuck. She was talking so much. She did this all the time. Answer the goddamn question. They don’t want a dissertation. They aren’t going to like you if you give them a dissertation. They’re selective. The path is narrow. “I mean, my mom was a Calvinist. So, it’s not like being satisfied is easy for me, you know?”
It was rhetorical, of course, so Erin was surprised to hear the widower say: “Yeah.”
She’d glanced at his face when she first came in, but she hadn’t noticed him, not really. His wife had died the first month that Erin lived in Minnesota, in a car accident on her way back from a conference in Duluth. He had two daughters and walked alone, hands in his pockets, by the creek near her house some days. Sometimes, when she was sitting at the counter and passing her eyes over her students’ personal statements without reading them, she saw him out the front window walking by the creek and skipping stones, and there was something about that, him standing hunched over in his green jacket, that made her yearningly sad.
“I know that feeling,” the widower said. “I grew up in North Dakota in a Reformed church. It’s hard to shake that sort of thing.”
“Where in North Dakota?” Erin asked.
“Up north of Devil’s Lake.”
“You know Hansen’s Bend? To the south?”
“Heard of it.”
“That’s where my mother was from.”
“Neat,” he said, and he smiled, his cheeks pushing his glasses up a bit.
* * *
The exercises were, she thought, not the most useful out there. They talked about God, and belief, and what they believed God was telling them to do. They made lists of their skills and lists of their passions. They were made to reflect on moments that were truly Good, moments where the universe came into alignment, where everything moved as a piece and it felt as if you were just an actor in a grander design. Erin knew that she had some of these moments — she must have some, secreted away somewhere, she thought — but none came to mind, so she made one up when it came to her turn.
When the group was silent, between activities, Erin, biting her lip and trying to engage in Silent Centering, found herself amid an unfamiliar silence. It was not the silence of her North Shore childhood, the silence of wealth at peace, just dead space between anecdotes, and it wasn’t quite her mother’s silence, that steely fearful Scandic quiet. It was more like the crackle on the other end of a telephone on a windy day. Difficult to discern. Hard to read. It gave her a bit of hope. Maybe they would like her. Maybe the long loneliness would be over.
She kept her eye on the widower. She hated that she thought this, but there was some small inkling she had that he, too, was making a new life, and that maybe she could glom on. Dinner parties on winter nights. His older daughter was Caleb’s age, wasn’t she? Those two might go to homecoming together one year. The widower would walk down the street, and she and Harry would wave from their window and walk with him, and soon they would know the neighborhood.
After two hours or so, Father Ben clapped his hands and held them together tightly like a schoolmistress. “Okay, folks. Thanks so much,” he said. “We’re done for the day. Please don’t forget your journals. They’re important. See you all on Sunday, I hope?” He grinned, stood up, got his long coat from the back of his chair, and slipped out the door before the goodbyes began.
Erin got her coat and checked her phone. Caleb had called. Shit. He probably needed a ride home from Liam’s house.
People filed past her. None said goodbye. She looked across the room at the widower. He put on his coat and looked at the floor and started to walk towards the door. He, too, didn’t say anything to her as he passed.
“See you next week,” she called out to him, her voice breaking a little.
He flashed her a polite smile and left.
* * *
Caleb had called, but Erin took a few minutes for herself after she left the church. She walked through the stone doors and down the banks of dead, crunching grass to the river. There was the stone bench by the banks, given in memory of Father Ben’s grandmother, and she sat on it and watched the ice floes, thin and with a shimmer, float down the creek on their way to the Mississippi. She thought about when she was a girl and she’d driven for twelve hours with her mother on a snowy March day to hear her grandfather preach quietly about Hell at the little white church in Hansen’s Bend. Even afterward, at the potluck, when talk turned back to how the Bison were doing this season or what Julie Samuelsson’s daughter was doing out in Hollywood, it still hung in the air, that hushed aching fear.
When she and Harry moved, Erin had this hope that she would be called up. That things would come together. That she wouldn’t feel that ache again. Since then, they had made no friends. Nobody would come over for dinner more than once. They had thrown New Year’s Eve parties in Denver every year, elaborate ones, but ended the tradition when they realized they no longer had anyone to invite. Everyone, at work and at church and at parent-teacher meetings, would ask how she was doing; no one would bother to listen.
Erin Crenshaw didn’t cry: not usually, and not at that moment. She was, as she put it, a sigher, not a crier. So she put her head in her hands and her elbows on her knees and sat there for a while, feeling the weight of her head and the cold breeze drifting through the pines and wishing for a catharsis she knew wouldn’t come.
Minnesota was Lutheran on the surface, she thought, but it was at its core a Calvinist place. There were the elect and the damned, and you might have never been told which one you were. But, Christ — you knew.
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