I had lunch today with Zoe Keithley. I’ve blogged about her one other time. I think of her now as one of those rare treasures that comes along and is worth every effort I have.
Zoe leads the writing workshops I’ve attended off and on over the last 12+ months. She’s approaching 80. Halfway through life, she engaged in the life of being a writer. A number of her short stories have been published, but she hasn’t been able to crack the nut of publishing a novel. Manuscripts “lost” by agents for months and years. Agents or publishers saying they’re interested, but before making their final commitment reaching their quota for the year. All of the standard stuff.
One of my 2013 missions is to see her first novel published. First for the Kindle and eventually in paperback. What’s the novel about … well, here’s the first chapter. My question for you … questions actually … What do you think? Do you want to read more? If so, would you like to be one of a handful of the readers I’d like to have read this before I go “live” with Zoe’s novel? Let me know. I’ve read it. I marvel at how she has told a story the old-fashioned way in a style that is befitting of the time in which the story occurs. (For now, please ignore formatting issues. Just read. Let me know what you think.)
One: Chapter of Faults
“Then a spirit passed before my face;
the hair of my flesh stood up:
It stood still, but I could not
discern the form thereof:
an image was before mine eyes,
there was silence, and I heard a voice
saying, “Shall mortal man be more just
than God? Shall man be more pure
than his maker?”
Book of Job 4: 15-17
The floors had just been waxed that September afternoon when Michael Rhenehan brought his ten year-old daughter Helene to the Convent of the Sacred Heart for school. Before dawn, on their hands and knees, six Working Sisters had spun out the thick amber paste until a golden ice flowed everywhere.
Closing the door to his convertible, the heart surgeon saw sagging stones, crawling ivy and milky windows. He took a deep breath and jabbed the doorbell. “God,” he thought, “I hope this is going to be all right.” It was September 14, 1948, and exactly three o’clock.
At the sound of the buzzer he passed into the narrow stone vestibule, through the inner door with the frosted etched glass, mounted the old wooden steps and strode out into the foyer where his heavy physician’s sole sailed out from under him. In a rush of air, the fluted wall lamps, European side tables and antique vases sprang away; the ornate ceiling reeled downward and the gleaming floor delivered a hammering blow tohis backside that emptied his lungs.
He lay there gasping. Ahead loomed the chapel doors with the oversized mahogany hearts he saw pictured on the front of the brochure. Everywhere about him stretched the gleaming lake. Why in hell would anyone bring floors to such a high shine that no one could walk on them? His hangover gonged behind his eyes. He could have shattered an elbow. He heard the anxious tippy-tap of portress feet and held up a hand. “I’m fine thank you, Mother,” he strained the words through his teeth, found his knees, straightened his jacket and smoothed his hair while his right buttock throbbed. The redheaded daughter, dawdling up the stairs behind him with her night bag banging at her knees, had frozen at the banister and gaped until she saw the father stave off the clucking nun.
The Portress steered them into the parlor where the French windows let dollops of sunlight splatter over everything and the lace curtains sighed with the changeling wind. The nun murmured some words in French and disappeared. Why is it she never slips, Michael Rhenehan wondered sourly.
Father and daughter sat near the windows. Michael Rhenehan looked around, saw solvency. If Mary Helen were alive, she would be pleased: This Order ran the best Catholic girls’ schools in the world–everyone said so—-with nuns from the most prominent Catholic families. And they must all be royalty; the place cost a fortune.
Past Superiors bossed the walls showing disapproval of a father who would bring his only and motherless daughter here, like a dog to a kennel, so that he could gallivant around Europe for six months lecturing on surgical procedure. Well, was he supposed to remain hog-tied in Chicago because he had a child while those with less ability picked the plums?
The stubboen odor of fresh wax mixed with that of his alcohol-driven sweat, his liver doggedly processinging drinks from the night before while he wished to hell he could unzip his skin. Had that nun gone for someone or were they supposed to sit here all day guessing what to do next?
He stole a glance at the figure beside him: hHis motherless daughter was rummaging in her nose. He let an elbow fly.
“Use your handkerchief,” he hissed.
She frosted him with her startlingly robin’s-egg blue eyes from under the wild copper of her dead mother’s hair. She was tall for ten and thick, with square shoulders and a flat pan-shaped face that was all freckles.
“I’ve told you a thousand times to always bring a handkerchief. Your father is a physician, for God’s sake. Here.” He rolled onto one ham, winced, and dug a square of white from a rear pocket.
She slid the finger in and out of her mouth and grinned. “Don’t need it now.”
His blood simmered. Lately she found a million ways to defeat him. The two had argued the thirty miles north from Chicago while Lake Michigan flashed in sapphire bits behind the thickets of woodland trees and sprawling stone mansions. Well, these nuns were famous for polishing rough edges.
He pulled the drape aside and let in a blare of light. “But what a beautiful day.” Out the window, columns of clouds marched toward them. He dropped the curtain. “Nana should see this place.” He ran his index finger over the coffee table. “I could do surgery.”
“You can put me in any school you want to over there.” “I’m all packed.”
He saw the tiny muscles that shut off tears tighten around her eyes.
“You don’t speak Italian, honey. Besides, what will I tell them here? And there’s your uniforms, they’re made to order; we can’t send them back. We’ve been over this.”
“I’ll learn Italian. I’ll wear the uniforms. Please Dad. It’s like a jail here. Look at the windows.”
He had not noticed the elegantly curved iron security bars. For the hundredth time he forced himself to picture her scuffing along behind him down the streets of Rome, her lower lip in a pout. No, it would be hell. “You’ll be going to Nana’s in New York for Thanksgiving, then coming to Rome for Christmas. You’re making too much of this, Helene. It’s only six months. Lots of kids do this.” Where in God’s name was that nun?
“It’s too long. And you promised you’d never leave me.” She turned upon him her eyes of righteousness. “You promised.”
They’d had their ritual down the years: I’ll never leave you, he’d reel her into his big bear hug. Never Daddy? she’d test. NevERRR, he’d growl and tighten until she squealed. Now he met her eyes and looked away. Some promises just couldn’t be kept.
Just then a square of black boomed through the parlor door. Michael Rhenehan lept to his feet. Reverend Mother Gregory, in perfect command of the floor, veil flaring like elephant ears crossed with an outstretched hand.
“Dr. Rhenehan of course. A pleasure to meet you at last.” She had a handshake like a sea captain. “With school a week underway, I’m happy we can give you a bed. Opportunity knocks for professionals, and we understand they must answer.”
He judged her to be about sixty-three or four, seventy pounds overweight and built like a freighter, with a man-shaped head and an unnervingly wide mouth jammed all into the tightly fluted bonnet. He nudged his daughter.
“And this is our new stieu-dent?” The Superior swiveled. “‘Helene’, isn’t it?” Back to the father. “I know ours will be a splendid association.” She clasped her hands as if she had caught a moth, swiveled to the girl again. “And you are going to learn and learn here, young lady.”
Helene’s face darkened. She climbed back onto the settee and stared across the room at the piano.
Michael Rhenehan waited for the nun to arrange herself on a chair, noted the bunion bulge the left shoe and her small eyes taking in like an estate appraiser his shoes, suit, tie, cuff links, haircut; and then move to his girl’s bearcub body, fly-away shirttail and sagging socks.
“The Portress mentioned the floor—-“she gestured toward the foyer. “We apologize. Normally I would ask if we should call a doc–.”
“I’m fine, thank you.” His hangover sawed his head.
Outside, birds quarreled among the juniper berries and a north wind began to pull cloud trails across the sun. The light in the room sobered and brightened in a game of hide and seek.
The Superior straightened her back, opened her gunwales and began firing: The mission of the Order to educate women, the educational philosophy of the founder, Madeleine Sophie Barat. Michael Rhenehan counted the Persians floating like exotic postage stamps, traced with his eyes the luminous ring of the antique magnifying glass on the coffee table. The pebbles Superior’s voice scrubbed over his face.
“Spare the mind and spoil the child is our experience here, Doctor. Ignatius of Loyola is our model.”
The daughter gnawed at her cuticle over the pendulum of her feet.
But what if Helene got sick or began her period? Well, but these were experienced women here; and he could always be reached by phone. This was for her future as well, after all.
The parlor door sang. The Superior leaned back and turned to look.
“Ah, here is our Mother Adelli now.”
She came to them across the shining floor, a young woman not much taller than the girl in the black cape and whispering floor-length skirts of the Order, her rosary beads chattering lightly and carrying her body like a dancer, Michael Rhenehan thought. He rose.
Reverend Mother Gregory did the honors and the father watched his daughter inventory the new nun to a cold count of five.
“Mother Adelli is Mistress of the Third Cours–;” Reverend Mother Gregory leaned toward the girl, then deferred then to the father. “’Cours’ is’ French for ‘course.’ We were founded in France. Your daughter will learn French with us,” she beamed.
“Oh, you’ll be able to help me order when we go to Amour’s,” the father made a menu of his hands. The girl tisked and threw her head.
“I notice from your application your daughter has not made her First Communion. But she is Catholic?”
“Her mother had her baptized. I keep her in Catholic schools. I want her to get the best education available,” he said and watched pleasure flare in the woman’s eyes.
“All my friends are in public school,” Helene announced and began pounding her heel against the leg of the settee. Reverend Mother Gregory’s eyes widened; Mother Adelli’s body stiffened.
“You’re going to break that,” Michael Rhenehan reached a hand to the girl’s leg. She slid onto her tailbone and crossed her arms over her chest.
“Now, do I understand that you prefer she not–.”
“I am a man of science, Reverend Mother. I am not strong on religion. I want Helene to make up her own mind about such things. So, nothing further of the religion at this time, but your cultural atmosphere will be good for someone like my daughter who lost her mother at four years-old and whose father is much too busy, I’m afraid.”
“But saving lives, doctor. I recall the article in the Tribune last year about your work. Astounding, truly.” The Superior hung upon him a momentary look of reverence, then recollected herself. “You choose wisely, for the Church is the cradle of Western civilization and the mother of our culture. ” She paused, then added brightly. “Mother Adelli here will be going to Rome this summer, to make Final Vows.”
“Oh?” Michael Rhenehan forced his eyes to open wide. But wasn’t that what she was in here for? Something about the way the young woman sat, one hand upon the arm of her chair and eyes cast down, made him see a Renaissance madonna.
“You must stop at the Trinita, to view the miraculous fresco of Mater Admirabilis,“ the Superior went on as if seeing into his mind. “The color actually comes and goes in the cheeks; I’ve witnessed it myself. Each of our convents displays a replica. You’ll see our own life-size Mater during our tour of the building.”
The young nun would have been pretty, Michael Rhehehan decided, if it weren’t for the slight under-bite. The dark-fringed eyes, now softly taking his daughter in, though set a bit wide, were wonderfully bright beneath black brows shaped like twigs in a Japanese print; and the chocolate mole riding her lower right cheeek was out and out seductive. He never had understood forcing the soft rounds of the female form into these strange-looking and harsh constraints: the wrapped forehead, hemmed-in face, sleeves to the wrists, black wool to the floor. Odd the neck is left bare.
“Mother Adelli is really new here herself,” the Superior went on. “She came to us from Omaha when our Mother Boreman took ill last March. You might be interested, a rupture of the left ventricle.”
“Oh?” Michael Rhenehan nodded, pursing his lips professionally. He strained not to look at his watch. The Superior’s wide mouth filled him with revulsion.
“Your classmates are having Goûter now.” Mother Adelli leaned toward the girl who twirled the down on her crossed arms into peaks with her tongue. ”Just downstairs.”
“Goûter. Another French word,” the Superior shot Mother Adelli a sharp look: I ordered Goûter for you here in the parlor. I’m sure you both can use a little refreshment after your trip.”
“The students have been excited all day to meet you,” Mother Adelli began, but brought herself up short and dropped her eyes. It was “agaist the rule”–protocol–that, the Superior being present, a common religious speak up unless invited by her Superior. And, Mother Adelli’s cheeks heated, that was twice now.
The father wondered why the younger woman kept her voice so low; but then recalled from his daughter’s Catholic school in Chicago the strict pecking order of religious institutions; not that different from the medical world, really. Probably the young woman was more forceful when she was not under such close surveillance.
The Superior asked Mother Adelli if the student’s uniforms had arrived. The girl bleated out she saw those things in the catalogue and wasn’t wearing them, then laid a look upon her father as if he owed her money. The father colored: His daughter had worn uniforms five years at Cathedral. What was the uproar? The girl wasn’t wearing that funeral thing either. The Superior did not look amused. White uniforms were for feast days. There were also the sports uniform, the brown oxfords, white gloves and white veil. No need for other clothes unless a student was going into the city. The daughter glared at the father and re-packaged her arms.
Thinking the new student might feel better knowing she had a place for her things, Mother Adelli mentioned the uniform was already in her alcove, and then widened her eyes: a third breach of protocol. Oh, her own room, the father rebounded; and here she’d been afraid she’d be cramped all up with other girls. Well, not exactly a room, the Superior interposed, but a simple cot with curtains. Everyone had the same. Too much attention to the physical made the mind sluggish. Didn’t the doctor agree?
He smiled weakly. Whenever the woman spoke, The room seemed to tilt and everything tumble toward her. He worried again about the other one preoccupied now with her rosary beads, about her small frame. He had seen his daughter wrestle with her friends. Could she handle girls like that? Well, this Reverend Mother must know if the young woman was competent or not.
Goûter arrived on a silver tray. The doctor balanced the glass plate to cut into his brownie with a fork and chew dryly. The Superior explained that cloistered nuns take food only in private. Helene refused brownie and lemonade alike for her fingernails. “Sit on your hands if you can’t stop that,” the father hissed out of the corner of his mouth. The daughter blew air through her nostrils and jammed her fists under her thighs.
She would make new friends here, Mother Adelli lunged forward.
“I have friends at home,” Helene threw her shoulders about; “but I won’t have any left after six months here.” She nailed her father with foerce blue eyes. The Superior tappedwith her fingers on her chair arm.
Of course she would write her friends and have her own post box, Mother Adelli encouraged, and then observed her Superior’s countenance. That was five times now.
Oh, her own post box, the father hallooed.
“What are some Congé activities Miss Rhenehan can write to her friends about, Mother Adelli?” Reverend Mother Gregory prompted. “Congés are school holidays, Dr. Rhenehan.”
There was the game of Hide and Seek called Câche-câche where a whole team hides and the other team has to find them. Last year the Reds went undiscovered in the tool shed. The year before the Whites hid successfully in the circular fire escape. When the weather was nice, they all might go for a run in the ravines.
“And our activities are all safe, Dr. Rhenehan. We take no foolish chances,” the Superior turned to the father.
“What am I supposed to do with games like that?” Helene boiled over. “I’m not wasting my time on stupid games my friends will laugh at.“
“You’ll watch your tongue, young lady,” the father clipped her off. “And you’ll do what you’re told.”
“I said I didn’t want to come here,” her lower lids brimmed. “You never do what you say you’re going to do. All you ever think about is sick people.”
“That’s my job; and I’m sure you don’t mind that it pays for everything you—-,“ The father blazed, then forced his mouth closed and the cords of his neck stood out.
Reverend Mother Gregory raised her voice. “Your daughter will have a wonderful time with us.” Her words were for the father, but she looked directly at the girl. “She will learn. She will be happy. The days will pass quickly.” She shifted her gaze. “There will be no problem, Doctor Rhenehan. No problem. All will be well. Mother Adelli and I will see to it.”
Mother Adelli, silently sayig her rosary, hoped it would keep her mind from meddling in God’s business here. Last August she had participated in the Community’s “Chapter of Faults,” a spiritual discipline practiced by the nuns four times a year in which every Religious has her character defects compiled by the others; and then, one by one, kneels in the center of the circle to hear her faults read aloud. “Seeing too many sides of an issue,” “Not able to make up her mind,” “Too much of a loner,” and “failing to ask for advice” comprised the bulk of Mother Adelli’s list, to which she could heartily add a short temper, vanity over students’ affection and, under pressure, the temptation to lie.
Reverend Mother Gregory leaned sideways, plunged her arm into an opening in her skirt to right herself with reading glasses. “Now,” she produced a paper as well, “to our rules. I’m sure you will find sensible.”
Michael Rhenehan heard No: No improper speech; Nolo mi tangere: no touching of others or nuns; no leaving of the grounds; no talking except at meals, Goûter and special occasions; no pets. All students curtsy to priests, Religious, and visitors; are graded weekly on studies, conduct and attitude; have reports sent quarterly to parents.
Michael Rhenehan set down his plate, a little sick. His fingers stole to his jacket pocket for his emergency smoke.
“Ashtray, Dr. Rhenehan?” the Reverend Mother asked in a private tone, as if she understood his need for an indecent act.
He shook his head, fetched his hand back. A building bell gave out a far away ding-ding-ding. His head felt axed nape to crown. He breathed his alcohol-driven sweat and eyed the barrister’s bookcase at the wall where he mentally stretched himself out upon a shelf, head on his arm and back to the room.
“Breeding, Doctor Rhenehan, comes not from money but from discipline. Discipline,” the Superior drew out a pinch of air, “will extrude your daughter’s gold for the contributions she will make to life. To discover and mine that precious ore is our task here.” She handed the paper to the father who stuffed it into his inside jacket pocket. “Wouldn’t you say so, Mother Adelli?”
But Mother Adelli was lost in constructing an introduction of the new girl to the Third Cours. Of course, she stammered, everything possible would be done to make the school a home to the girl. To which Helene responded with a black look. But of course, Mother Adelli corrected herself, nothing could replace the home the girl knew. At this, acute annoyance walked across the face of the Superior. She retrieved the rudder.
Dr. Rhenehan should know about the fabulous altarpiece he would see on their tour of the ampus. She drew her chair forward to close the gap and exhaled something sour and old. Michael Rhenehan looked away to see his daughter’s finger buried in her nose. He turned back and there was the Superior’s wide mouth and a grey hair vibrating on her chin. Her voice ran over him like small rubber tires. He felt his head bob. He saw his daughter at the other end of the settee, small and remote–and realized he had nothing more to say to her.
The parlor floor released a waxy odor, funereal and spicy. Sweat rushed to his forehead. He couldn’t seem to breathe. His hangover sawed at a split in his head.
He stretched his arm. The ruby chip at his shirt cuff flashed. The watchface emerged, arrowtips pointing to three forty-eight. He heard his voice crack
“Ten to four. I’m afraid I must be going,”
saw the stiff red second hand sweep away his daughter’s popped-out eyes, the Superior’s large opening mouth, the other one’s sprung eyebrows and rising body, sweep away the prancing furniture, premeditating rugs, the floor with its malevolent trickery. He saw his leg lift its trouser, saw the ox-blood shoe follow to take the long step from the settee that slowly blew its dimple out, felt his hair hoist and witnessed, as if from across the room, his hands swat his jacket into place, his head swivel, his daughter collect her body,
felt her voice pass through his eyes and catch at his stomach, her face rising toward him, bringing the panic to a boil, making him turn quickly to the Reverend Mother and the other one,
“I have patients at the hospital, and my plane leaves at six a.m. There is packing to do yet–.”
heard the rasp of his words erase the two nuns like chalk on a blackboard,
“I’ll make sure to see everything next time. Reverend Mother, Mother–Amelli, isn’t it? It’s been a pleasure.“
heard his voice scour away the daughter’s bitten finger ends,
“You understand, Pumpkin. You know your Dad has to—“
scour away her lower lip, now violently alive. Oh, don’t let her face shatter–
“–see his patients. Good-bye Tootsie-pie. Write your dad now.”
He feels his surgeon hands grasp the square of her shoulders, feels the fear steaming from her armpits while the kiss just over her eyes grazes the pimple coming on huge and furious,
“Don’t forget me now, with all your new friends.”
the silk of a curl springs against his lips. But she will not clear the way; and her blue eyes ulcerate his cheek while that beast of a piano stirs at the end of the room. He leaves her there; shakes the pudgy Reverend Mother hand, hears himself
“Of course, if you must. We understand perfect-—.”
“And I believe I left all the numbers with you?”
as the stunned nun-voices reel backwards and the deliberate floor exhales its odor of sepulchers, the furniture unsheathes its claws; and turning from the tall windows, sees his own long lean figure: the hound’s tooth suit, the handsome polished face and darling boy curls, the professional eyes; feels the fierce hooks yanking his lips sideways, the broken crockery smile ripping through the threadbare sack between his ribs,
“Mother Amelli, take care of my girl for me now”
the toy nun’s sprung eyebrows and open mouth, the one kiss more– young-skin bouquet, quick smacking sound, the low warning growl of the chairs and the ringing of his steps, the bumpy ornate knob beneath his sweating palm, the foyer’s cool benediction, scent of incense rivering his blazing face, his out-turned hand holding off the hurrying Portress and long shoe searching for the rubber step to fall away from the robin’s–egg blue eyes, from the hollow “Wait, Dad” as he lifts his thousand pound legs, the triple stitched jacket tail flap-flapping, then his shoulder against the door, Mary Helen’s baby’s bawling sawing his bones, the shaking key searchig the dark slit Go back for God’s sake; do it right, the building’s hoary beard and cataracted eyes the blessed motor like a cannon Go back before it’s too late with the little stones ping pinging and the mouth of the front door sealing in the fury of his girl’s hair and frantic awkward body his cells slamming shut the screaming tires the bull’s eye of the open gate the long pluming tail of darkness