December 3, 2012 / Creative Writing
In “Prayer as Definition,” the poet Nicholas Samaras meditates on the essence of prayer as both conversation and communion, even with the barest of words.
December 13, 2012
“Do you love me?” Annette lay on the floor outside her sister’s room. Joan was nine and in bed, if not asleep.
“Joan?” Annette faced a sliver of space between the door and the molding, the opening through which her sister lay. A strip of maroon carpet stretched behind her over the wooden floorboards, leading past the door to her bedroom and her mother’s room farther down the hallway. Annette pressed her cheek to the ground and pulled her knees up under her nightdress.
“Do you love me?” she whispered again, just loud enough for Joan to hear.
“Go away!” Joan yelled. Annette froze, but it was too late; there were her mother’s footsteps already stomping down the hall.
“What do you think you’re doing?” her mother cried. “Why aren’t you in bed?”
Annette scrambled to her feet, tearing the thin membrane of moonlight cast from the window on the landing above. She glanced at her mother’s face and saw confirmed what she already knew. As she ran back to her room, her mother’s look of disgust smarted like a slap.
Annette slammed the door and climbed into her bed in the alcove. She had been given this room when her father moved his study to the third floor, after Joan had claimed the pink room and their mother the yellow one, and even though Annette knew that she had only been given this room because there had been no others left, she liked the dark beams that divided the gold walls into panels and crisscrossed the ceiling. Now she imagined the alcove breaking off from the rest of the house and floating into the night.
Annette was not thinking of those long-ago days as she reached for her car keys.
“I’m going out for a bit,” she called up the stairs to Lisette and Bram, who were doing their homework. “If your father comes home, tell him I’ll be back soon.”
A few minutes later, her footsteps echoed across the parking lot. She glanced through the open door to the fellowship hall. Figures milled about beneath a brass chandelier—the annual clothing sale dinner was just getting under way. Instead of going into the hall, Annette slipped around the fender of a Ford Suburban and pulled open a heavy, red-painted door at the side of the church. As she crossed through the Gothic arch, she imagined she was stepping through a flame.
Inside, all was hushed, the nave and pews indistinguishable in the darkness. Directly in front of her, a reading light curved over a lectern, and as she approached, she read the note left by Reverend Susanna that invited visitors to enter the chapel for silent prayer on this third Thursday in Lent.
Annette had never visited the chapel at night; she was new not only to Saint Paul’s but to church in general. Her parents had never prodded Annette or her sister out of the house on a Sunday morning to sit fidgeting in pews, and although she might have been curious what it was all about, Annette had not felt any particular lack. In fifth grade, when her teacher, as part of a social studies project, had divided the class into groups based on denomination, the Catholics, Jews, and Protestants had all divvied up—there were no Muslims, Buddhists, or Hindus—leaving Annette standing in a group of one.
“And what are you, Annette?” Miss Capon had asked.
“I’m a pantheist,” Annette had replied, tingling with pleasure to have discovered this word that captured not only her sense of God but to have solved the dilemma of what she was.
Now the chapel was empty, save a portrait of Jesus hanging on the altar. Annette sat first on one cane seat, then on another; she had not expected to have the space all to herself. Every time a car door slammed, she held her breath, listening to the footsteps crossing the pavement. But no one entered the chapel, and soon the only sound beyond the stone walls was the rhythmic flush of cars passing by on Broadway.
Annette stepped around the iron railing and approached the altar to examine the portrait of Jesus. A patina of gold leaf encircled his robed form, layers of translucent paint creating a luminous pallor on his exposed hands and face.
“I didn’t used to like you,” Annette whispered, but now—the silence pushed back her words, making them sound tinny and wrong.
She turned her attention to the candles arranged on a white cloth and noticed that two of the votives had gone out. If she wanted, she thought, she could take something, like the special candle in the glass bottle with the cross etched on the side. When she peered closer, however, the wax looked congealed, and she wondered if Reverend Susanna added the extra wax from the burned-out votives to keep the candle going longer. Her glance settled on the sconces on the wall, and for a moment she was tempted. But even if she had a way of removing the iron fixtures, she realized they wouldn’t go with anything else in her home. This was a relief, that there was nothing here for her to take, nothing to steal. She knew, though, that this wasn’t entirely true.
It had been a long time since she had taken anything so big or heavy, and she reminded herself that even all those years ago, it had been a mistake. She had been working late in one of her first jobs out of college. There had been no one in the building; the place was deserted, and as Annette had passed the reception area on her way out, she had reached up and removed a painting of a windblown beach in a heavy gold frame. She had always admired the painting, and in the thin space of silence, she had hauled it down the stairwell and onto the subway. Only after heaving it up three flights of stairs into her Brooklyn apartment did she realize how ludicrous the ornate frame and thick oil paint looked next to her IKEA bookcase and futon couch. For the first time she started to worry about what would happen when people came in to work the next day. Panicked, she had trekked the painting back to Midtown and rehung it on the wall at two o’clock in the morning.
Now, decades later, she stared at the painting of Jesus, wishing she could reach the promise in his eyes, but even here, in the intimacy of the chapel, something held her back. When she closed her eyes, the painting of Jesus disappeared, and in its place she saw her grandmother’s house. How she had admired the porcelain and crystal, the collection of jeweled pill boxes arrayed on a table with delicate, bowed legs, as if, were she able to surround herself with these precious objects, she might be cherished as well.
Whenever they visited their grandmother’s house growing up, she and Joan would ask to be excused from the dinner table so they could run upstairs to the guestroom and peek in the bureau, where drawer after drawer was packed with evening bags, each turquoise blue or red velvet clutch meticulously wrapped in tissue paper. Would her grandmother notice, Annette had wondered, if she slipped just one purse into her overnight bag? But even if she had, where would she hide something so glamorous in her own home?
It was not that her own house was shabby, not exactly. Her father was a university professor, and they lived in Brookfield, where her friends’ bedrooms were decorated in matching pink bed sets and thick pile carpeting. So even if she and Joan bought their clothes from Goodwill, how could they be poor? In the winter when she woke up there would be a crust of ice on the glass of water by her bedside table. When Joan complained, their father threatened to move to a cabin in the woods where they would have to pump their water from a well like Thoreau.
Money, he told them, was the root of all evil, and from what Annette could gather, this had something to do with Annette’s grandparents. Perhaps the evil came from the fact that Annette’s father, instead of going into his father’s business manufacturing tool parts, had become a mathematician. And this, in turn, meant that whenever they visited Annette’s grandparents, her grandmother would discreetly pass a small rectangle of paper to Annette’s father that he would slip into the breast pocket of his shirt. Rather than make him happy, though, this pale blue missive seemed to put him in a bad mood for days.
Annette, though, would have loved someone to offer her gifts, like maybe the silver pill box with the tiny enamel rose which Annette could keep on a round table with curved legs that she didn’t, in reality, own. Instead of the threadbare carpet that her father had spread over the floor of her room, she would have liked a plush, creamy rug that squished between her toes, and she would even have wanted to buy her clothing from Filene’s, the department store where the girls from Brookfield Middle School shopped. Sometimes on her way home from school she would detour through town to stare in the store windows at the mannequins with their perfectly coordinating outfits and plastic smiles.
On one particularly frigid day in December, after looking at the window displays, Annette pushed open the door to Brigham’s Ice Cream Parlor. Heat hissed from the pipes and customers drank hot chocolate in the booths at the back of the store. She browsed through the candy displayed in cases up front, coveting, in particular, the cashew patties for a dollar seventy-five. She passed by them once, twice, and then, when no one was looking, she slipped a packet up her sleeve. Her heart racing, she yanked her scarf away from her neck, the prickly heat having become intolerable as she strode outside. A short time later, she tore open the cellophane and bit into the crisp saltiness of the cashews, flakes of chocolate crumbling off in her hand.
This, then, was how it began, with small, tempting baubles that she would hoard like a magpie. Her petty thievery continued in this way until the summer between high school and college, when she got a job working as an au pair in New York City. Every day Annette cleaned a different room in the Sharons’ apartment before going to her art class in the afternoon. One Wednesday, after dropping the Sharons’ son at day camp, Annette returned to the Central Park West apartment to dust the dozens of artifacts and sculptures arrayed throughout the living room. The Sharons were never home, and the blinds remained permanently closed to protect the artwork from the ravages of the sun. As she lifted a carved wooden figurine, Annette tried not to imagine what would happen if she were to drop it onto the mirrored coffee table, the silence shattered into a myriad jagged splinters. The Sharons’ apartment should have presented her with a cornucopia of temptation, but Annette was never inclined to take anything, not only because there was nothing she especially liked, but also because she did not want to break her one unflinching rule, that she would never steal from someone she knew.
On her weekends off, Annette tried to stay out of the apartment as much as possible, and on one hot and humid Saturday, she left Central Park to meander along Columbus Avenue. When she came to a boutique selling stationary she went inside, her attention drawn to a display of silver fountain pens. It was completely out of the question to buy one on her twenty-five-dollar-a-week salary, but this did not stop her from wanting one. As she examined the pens, she kept an eye on the saleslady, who was helping another customer. In that moment it was as if a space opened up, and Annette simply stepped through. Her heart racing, she lowered her hand below the counter and dropped the pen she was holding into her bag. Only when she was a block away did the prickle of nerves subside. She turned down a side street, sat on the soft gray stoop of a brownstone, and pulled out the pen. It was as gorgeous as she had thought it was, shiny and new, and it was hers. When she wrote with it, she would be stylish and elegant, too. Whatever feelings of guilt she had were fleeting—the stealing was just one more thing that no one saw.
That summer, her shoplifting transformed New York into a place of possibility, but it was also a time when she felt more hollow and alone than ever before. By the time she moved into her freshman dorm at college, she was lifting everything from a bathroom scale to a party dress with a huge, pink tulle petticoat that she stuffed into her bag. The stealing had become a part of her, and she would carve out special times when she could be alone to indulge her secret passion.
One New Year’s Eve, when she was out of college and working in New York City, she was walking along Sixth Avenue watching all the dressed-up people getting in and out of cabs. After several blocks, though, the amusement of seeing other people celebrate started to wane. When she passed a liquor store, she turned into the lighted doorway, browsing the shelves until she settled on a bottle of Bailey’s Irish Cream. She had enough money to buy the liquor, but sometimes the urge to become invisible in plain sight, an almost nostalgic ache tugging her toward that place of desolation and yearning, was a craving that she could not resist.
She was walking out with the bottle beneath her coat when the store clerk stopped her and asked her to open her jacket. He watched as she opened one side, then partially drew back the other side of her coat while clutching the bottle under her armpit. She made it out to the street just before the bottle fell. It was one of the only times she was almost caught.
As memories swirled around her, the candlelight flickering up the wall, Annette carried one of the hard, leather hassocks to the front of the chapel. She felt safer here, less exposed, and she slid her back down the stone pillar and sat on the cushion. She wasn’t sure how long she had been sitting this way when she heard rapid footsteps followed by the creak of the wooden door as Reverend Susanna entered the chapel.
“I’m over here,” Annette said, raising her hand so Susanna, who no doubt thought that the chapel was empty, would not be startled.
“Oh, there you are.” As Susanna approached, Annette rose.
“It’s beautiful here,” Annette said quickly. “The candles, and your note.”
“I’m glad,” Susanna said. “I was just on my way to fellowship hall.”
“The gold on the painting reminds me of my room when I was a child,” Annette blurted. “Its walls were painted a real metallic gold, and the ceiling was like this one.” She gestured to the dark beams overhead. “At night when my sister was in bed I would lie outside her door and ask if she loved me. She never answered, but now I’m here, in God’s house . . .” Inexplicably, maddeningly, she started to cry.
Susanna opened her arms, and Annette hesitated for just an instant before stepping into her ample embrace.
“Can I tell you one more story?” Annette asked, but then continued without waiting for a reply. “When my children were little I built them a fort with the sky for a roof, and all around the outside I painted murals, but I kept the inside bare. And then when I renovated our house, I made a sitting area with a dome for a roof—”
“You were building temples,” Susanna said softly, “everywhere you went.” She drew back and paused. “And now I’ll tell you a story. That portrait of Jesus was painted by a dear friend of mine. He was my mentor, and he passed away, and I miss him.”
“It’s a lovely portrait,” Annette murmured.
“Yes it is.” They stood for a moment in silence.
“Stay for as long as you’d like,” Susanna said gently before turning to join the rest of the parishioners.
Annette waited until the sound of her footsteps had receded before sitting back down on the hassock, overcome with shame. What had she been thinking, to even consider taking the painting? And what was wrong with her that she would choose to sit alone in the dark rather than go to the dinner with everyone else? Susanna, she thought, must hate her, and now every time she went to church Reverend Susanna would try and avoid her. One thought led to another, the familiar self-loathing, the unbearable need flowing out of her like a cut artery. Tomorrow, she thought, her eyes would look awful, pickled in the salt from her tears. She blew her nose, and when stillness finally descended, she slid further onto her stool until she was lying down, the length of her body pressed to the cold stone floor, her cheek on the hassock. She felt Jesus’s gaze, unwavering and serene.
“Do you love me?” she whispered, and this time the answer was all around. She lay against the floor until her hip bone started to ache. As she rose to her feet she looked over the twenty-four cane chairs, and gathering her jacket, she walked out into the vaulted night.
Tania Moore’s stories have appeared or are forthcoming in Kestrel, Sheepshead Review, The Westchester Review, Light Quarterly, and Opium online. She was a finalist for the 2012 bosque Fiction Prize, and she earned her MFA from Columbia University School of the Arts, where she was the recipient of the C. Woolrich Fellowship for fiction. She lives, prays and works along the mighty Hudson River, and you can reach her at taniamoore.me.