Weeks later, after she had buried her mother, ordered a tombstone, planted daisies in the fresh mound of dirt, Mirabelle went to Mass with her family and discovered the holy water receptacles still dry. Fans whirred above a crowded church where bodies swayed with boredom and restlessness as Father Olsen introduced a visiting priest, a Father Scott who would give the homily. Mirabelle was enticed by the dark stranger; it was the first time she felt herself engaged since her mother had died.
Father Scott did not stand behind the podium as the more perfunctory Father Olsen; he walked among the people. He was animated, kind, his jet black hair and features, dark skin made him exotic, as if he were from India or the Middle East. He talked about how compassionate acts create a certain “lightness,” how Christ’s compassionate acts can be divided into two types, those we can understand— role modeling, and those we cannot understand—miracles. Father Scott believed Christ’s capacity for compassion was so intense, it had reached a mystical level and this level of lightness enabled Him to walk on water, to turn 5 fishes into 5 thousand, to resurrect the dead.
Mirabelle was intrigued with this philosophy and at the end of the Mass, she approached Father Scott and introduced herself. His hand was warm, as if it had a strong lifeblood running through it. She asked if she could make an appointment to speak with him about grief. Father Scott’s countenance immediately changed with the word from hospitable to concerned. They stood just outside the shadow of the roof in the glorious Sunday heat, and she noticed how he had beads of sweat clinging to the curls at his temples. She thought of the layers of clothing he wore, the clergy shirt and pants, the outer vestments, cope, stole etc., all that cloth—she felt guilty for keeping him. They agreed upon a time and Father Scott housed her hand in both of his when he said good-bye.
Mirabelle stood at the kitchen sink and stared at the woods in the back of her house. The receding sun of the early summer twilight shown through the tall pines and onto the ferns now growing fiddleheads and fronds over the ledge. She thought of her mother’s voice. This was the time of day her mother would call and she would grab the phone on its second ring to hear her mother speak her name tenderly, Mirabelle?
Home was the sacristy Philomena built. It was her mother who prepared the meals, ironed the sheets, grew the sweet basil on the windowsill. Mirabelle eventually followed suit and had her own children, made her own home, but she could always go back to the home Philomena made, and her mother would butter her toast, poach an egg, make a pot of coffee and talk of family. Like Philomena, family was the mechanism that kept Mira intact.
She knew her tribe—they ate under her mother’s crystal chandelier after Mass and gossiped and reminisced and laughed and smoked. Mira liked to sit and listen to their stories of the old days when they all lived in an apartment building in the North End and knew each other’s business. Pop sat at the head of the table crushing walnuts in his palms, listening to the gossip and current events being filtered through the old folks. He would chuckle softly in his seat or solemnly shake his head and Mira would then know what to think.
Philomena made fun of all of them. She had the uncanny ability to imitate people; she took on their facial expressions, their voices. A cup of coffee with her mother on a Saturday afternoon meant a cup of coffee with Mickey, or Ida, or Rita, and their respective neuroses. It was funny. She and her mother would laugh and laugh and her mother would pound the table with her palm. Mirabelle missed these comedic interpretations; she missed her mother’s infectious laugh, its effervescence-like quality infused the world with levity.
The only person not up for discussion was Mirabelle’s sister Etta, who left with a group of hippies for California. It was no secret Philomena was worried and disappointed in Etta, whom she referred to as a puttana and a vagabond. Mirabelle felt the primordial sense of filial pride that her sister was bad in her mother’s mind and that she was good. Etta wasn’t there to say the rosary with Philomena or sit quietly watching the evening news while nurses padded around the bed. Etta wasn’t there to honor her mother’s last wishes to have her nails and hair colored so she would look like a lady and not a corpse. Mirabelle was the one who brought her mother joy during her last days, and it didn’t go unnoticed. “Don’t kid yourself,” Aunt Jenny said. “She’s eating this up.”
While Philomena was on her deathbed, Mirabelle went to morning Mass. It had been a while since she had attended a weekday Mass, and she felt like an interloper. She went through the imposing wooden doors and stuck her hand in the receptacle of holy water, but it was dry. She sat in the back of the church, behind the regulars, and fidgeted, thinking her mother could already be dead. After Father Olsen served communion, she left, headed out to the car and sped over the bridge down Route 128, where the water had retreated so far out, the boats in the bay were lying on their hulls in mud.
Philomena was asleep when Mirabelle arrived. She sat next to her mother and waited, watching her breathe for most of the afternoon. Aunt Jenny came unannounced and sat by Mirabelle’s side and they prayed the rosary. When Aunt Jenny went out for a cigarette, Mirabelle leaned in close to her mother. “Ma,” she said. “Ma, it’s me, Mirabelle.” Philomena moved her mouth and Mirabelle moved in closer. She was waiting for a glimpse of the master plan, something her mother, now in-between worlds, could say to soothe all of her worries, something that could give her solace and insight when times got inconceivable and dark. Philomena opened her eyes; they were covered in a film. She murmured something. Mirabelle asked her to repeat it. “Goodnight Etta,” her mother said, “wherever you are,” and she died. That was it. Death was very anticlimactic and simple. Mirabelle left the room in a stupor; there was no miraculous event to take with her, no closure, no burst of love, only a valediction meant for someone else.
Upon meeting Father Scott, Mirabelle’s grief was now peppered with thoughts of him. She imagined walking up to the rectory door, knocking on it softly. Father Scott would usher her to his room. In his room there would be a wooden table with a wooden bowl. The bowl would be clean. There would also be a ceramic cup and a wooden chair. Mirabelle imagined a fire in a fireplace, tended well with ample wood stowed at its hearth. There would be books written by the mystics and Christian philosophers, a single bed with a pressed white sheet and pillow, blankets folded over the end. Father Scott’s life would be that of an ascetic and a scholar and Mirabelle longed to be near it, occupy that room herself, eat from the bowl, drink from the cup, pray fireside in the evening when the sky’s firmament was silent and vast.
When the morning of the meeting arrived, Mirabelle was nervous. She thought perhaps her make-up was overdone and spent an extra ten minutes touching up her face. She made sure to choose a floral skirt, remembering what priests in her day thought of shorts, also, to use the bathroom; her nervousness weakened her bladder. She ran out of the house, late, hearing the toilet run and cursing her husband for not fixing the problem that had plagued her for weeks.
She waited on the porch of the rectory where there was a potted basil plant, limp from the late June heat; the leaves hung down like folded wings. Father Scott called her name from the side of the porch. He wore a short-sleeved clergy shirt; there was a rectangular bulge in the breast pocket. He suggested they take a ride to Rocky Neck and sit under a tree in the park by the water; it might be cooler there. Mirabelle agreed and Father Scott followed her to her car. She had never met with a priest before, outside of a confessional, and it was awkward to have one in her car. Father Scott, seemed to be relaxed. He rolled down the window and patted at the rushing air with his hand.
Mirabelle parked the car in a freshly paved parking lot. It was ten thirty in the morning and the heat engine of day was beginning to rev; she could feel the hotness from the pavement rising up to her calves. Out in the bay, a flock of seagulls were picking through the oyster beds at low tide. Some gathered at a fish carcass to jab at its loose flesh.
They chose a bench under a shade tree. She sat next to him, allowing for adequate bench space between them. Father Scott rested his left foot over his right knee and Mirabelle noticed how he wore leather sandals instead of shoes. She tried to remember if that sort of thing was allowed in her day as a catechist.
Father Scott withdrew a pack of Marlboro Lights from his clergy shirt pocket. “Do you smoke?” he asked. She shook her head. “Mind if I do?”
Father Scott cupped his hands about the lighter the way he took her hand in his the day she approached him, gently, with great intention. He drew in the smoke and exhaled to the sky. “I like to come to the piano bar here,” he said. “You know, sometimes, on weeknights when it’s not too crowded. There’s a man who plays Billy Joel songs.”
Mirabelle thought the piano bar was for the artists, or the locals to get drunk and sing sea shanties. She pressed her knees together for good posture, as she was taught to do in elementary school, and thought of Etta, how Father Scott, despite being a priest, was a man her sister might have liked.
Father Scott asked about her mother. He focused his compassionate gaze upon her. Mirabelle felt the sting of his cigarette smoke in her eyes; she pressed her knees tighter and began the story of her mother’s death. The more she spoke of it, the more she felt it trite. Grief had dwindled; it slithered away, under the bushes of the China roses, now in bloom at the edge of the grass. Everyone’s mother dies at some point, she told herself. And then it was not trite; it was not the grief that was trite, it was her words. She felt as if she had betrayed her love for her mother by using inadequate words. “I wanted something from her. I think I wanted something,” she told Father Scott.
Father Scott agreed. “We grow up wanting, expecting, taking from our parents our whole lives. At their death beds, it’s no different.”
“It seems wrong to want and take from a parent when they are suffering and vulnerable.”
“Maybe she was not as vulnerable as you thought; perhaps she was capable and you didn’t know it.”
“Capable of what?”
“Of giving you what you needed.”
“What was it that I needed?” Mirabelle asked.
“Only you know that,” Father Scott said.
He finished his cigarette, stifled the ash, twisted the stub between his fingers and placed it on the bench space between them.
A cool breeze rustled the leaves in the tree and Father Scott closed his eyes to succumb to it. Mirabelle closed her eyes too. For a moment the heat dissipated; she saw her mother sitting in a secret room inside her. She was waiting.
They had an amicable lunch at the clam shack at the end of the road. Father Scott was personable and kind and Mira felt more relaxed talking to him, but he provided no great insight to her predicament. Afterward, she dropped him off at the rectory and told him she would have him over for dinner while he was still in town, but she knew after she said it that this would not happen.
As she drove the windy road up the coast, grief slithered back in. In her mind, she visited the room inside herself where her mother sat. It looked similar to the ascetic room the fictitious Father Scott lived in. She could not, however, see her mother’s face clearly and she found this disconcerting. She saw the outline of her body, her thick arms, the curls in her hair, the floral pattern on her house dress. Was her face filled with light now and not discernible? She saw Aunt Jenny’s face and Etta’s face. She saw Father’s Scott’s face, but she could not see her mother’s face. In fact, she wasn’t particularly sure if the person in the room was indeed her mother.
In a dream, Mirabelle went to Father Scott’s imaginary ascetic room and knocked on the door. He received her in his ceremonial vestments, cloth upon consecrated cloth. She embraced him, felt the form of his lean body. Mirabelle traced her hands gently down his neck and along his shoulders to where the stole rested. It was purple, embroidered with gold symbols she did not recognize. She lifted it from him. She lifted the white cope, pulled the starched collar from his neck, unbuttoned his clergy shirt. She touched his bare chest and then a scar under his ribs. She reached inside the gash but it too was dry.
Mirabelle awoke to the sound of the toilet running; the sound seemed to accentuate her restless sleep. She turned to look at her husband as if he might do something about it, but Paul lay flat on his back fast asleep. It was three in the morning, and the moonlight illuminated the sheet crumpled at the foot of the bed. She remembered how her husband told her he saw a figure, once, standing over her as she slept. He could not make out the features, but the silhouette depicted a human form. This was shortly after her father had died, and Paul said the presence in the room had awakened him; he tried to nudge Mirabelle and wake her to not be alone with it. But then the figure faded. Mirabelle thought of checking each room in the house to see if her mother was there. It was a ridiculous thought, but she got out of bed, went to the bathroom to jiggle the toilet handle, and then downstairs to the kitchen where she could fetch a glass of water. If her mother was in the house, she would be there. Before she flicked on the light, she imagined her mother standing at the kitchen table with an apron over her church clothes. Upon seeing her daughter, she would give her a directive, to set the table or arrange the antipasto on a presentable dish. Mirabelle switched on the light and saw her empty kitchen as she had always known it at night, quiet, imperturbable.
The next morning, Paul gave a short lesson on toilet mechanics to their daughter, Samantha. Her husband, the engineer, knew the intimate workings of every appliance in the house as well as the cars in the garage. He was reluctant to replace appliances or parts of appliances if certain adjustments could be made.
“Why can’t we just fix it so that it doesn’t run?” Samantha asked.
“It’s just a minor adjustment, Sam. It won’t take up too much of your time,” Paul replied.
Her husband lectured them on how a running toilet could waste up to two gallons per minute; with the water ban on now because of the drought, this was unacceptable. They could come and put him in jail. Would she like that, if her father went to jail for a running toilet? Samantha smirked. “They can’t put you in jail for a running toilet, Dad.”
“You never know,” Paul said. “They put people in jail for all sorts of things these days.”
Later that day, Mirabelle had it in her mind to make a pot of sauce, despite the heat. She was missing a few things for dinner—olives and lettuce for the salad, a loaf of Italian bread, eggs for making the meatballs so she decided to take a trip to the supermarket. Once in the car, Mirabelle turned the air conditioner on high. This was something her husband told her to never do, maximize the demand on the air conditioner when the car was only running for a minute or so. She pulled out of the driveway with hot air blasting at her face and crossed the bridge over the marsh hoping the car would soon cool. The tide was out again, not one blade of grass in the sedge, nor one leaf on the bordering oaks moved; the landscape around her was tolerant and unwavering.
The automatic doors of the supermarket were propped open for airflow; there was a sign in the window: the air conditioner was broken and the manager was sorry about the inconvenience. Mirabelle perused the aisles of the supermarket, hoping that she would run into Father Scott. He would be buying a loaf of bread or perhaps some tea. He would tell her that he hoped she was doing well, that he had thought of something recently when he was contemplating her situation she might like to know. He would ask her if she would like to meet again. Mirabelle ventured down each of the aisles, passing lethargic patrons going about their business. She reached the checkout, paid for her items and with a small pang of disappointment, left.
When she arrived home, the toilet was running again, only this time the churning sound was louder and more imperative. She went to the bathroom to find the water streaming down the sides of the tank and panicked, lifted the cover and witnessed the water shoot up with a mystical force like a genii from a lamp. It doused her head, her clothes, immediately eradicating all oppressive heat. Mirabelle stood among the fountain of cool water as it soaked her and for a moment she was certain she heard it—the familiar sound of laughing.
Laurette Folk received a semifinalist nomination and “Noted Writer” award from the Boston Fiction Festival and has been published in upstreet, The Boston Globe Magazine, Literary Mama, Narrative Northeast, Italian Americana, and Talking Writing among others Ms. Folk is a graduate of the Vermont College MFA in Writing program and teaches at North Shore Community College.