By Thomas J. Hubschman ©Thomas J. Hubschman
The “facilitators” had arrived promptly at 8:00 a.m., and by 8:30 the first heavy-gauge black plastic trash bags were already full and deposited in the dumpster waiting at the curb outside the old apartment building. The facilitators were even more efficient than Marty had hoped for—or feared. The one in charge, a fat, pink-skinned woman who looked to be in her mid-30s (it was hard to tell because of her weight) reminded Marty of the head nurse in the hospital where her husband had spent most of the last month, except that, dressed in a pale blue track suit whose ill-fitting pants she had to keep hiking up, the woman looked less like a professional clutter-removal specialist than she did one of the homeless women who lived in the local armory and spent their days panhandling on the nearby shopping strip. Her two assistants, a thin, brown-skinned woman who looked as if she was used to better employment and a muscular but seemingly dimwitted young man, followed the fat woman’s orders as unthinkingly as if they were both retarded or feared some terrible consequence if they did not.
None of the CRFs, as they called themselves in the brochure Marty’s daughter had pressed on her when Tim was still in the hospital, not even the stony-faced supervisor, had reacted the way Marty assumed they would when they saw the situation in the apartment: floor-to-ceiling stacks of books and old magazines, two bedrooms filled with tires, broken drills, boxes of carpentry tools, computer printers, fax machines, videos, CDs, and boxes of still unwrapped clothing—to name just a few of the accumulated items. They simply went about their business boxing and hauling as if they had seen it all before, and perhaps even worse. The merest elevation of one eyebrow was all that Nurse Ratched, as Marty had already come to think of her, allowed before she started barking orders at her “staff.”
The doctors had told Marty that she and Tim should consider looking for an assisted-living facility because Tim would probably never be able to walk again on his own and, thanks to his enormous weight, there was no way she could look after him by herself. But the CRFs were her daughter’s idea and, to give her credit, one she was willing to back up with her own money. Not that the girl (she was actually in her early 40s) could not afford it. She had a nice job in a big law firm and no one but herself to look out for, unlike her mother who had had to raise a severely disabled child all on her own. The girl still held Marty responsible for her parents’ ten-year separation during the most difficult years of her young adulthood. But what was a woman to do when a man saw his marriage as a sin against the religious vocation he had been called to and was trying to make up for it by exposing his child to the same malevolent forces that had all but destroyed his sanity?
More likely a sin against his mother, Marty had thought, but she did not say so at the time. Though the priesthood had seemed inevitable since his early childhood, the idea had clearly originated with his mother. It was disappointing her, rather than letting down the deity, that had given Tim whatever pause he felt when Marty suggested they shack up in a scruffy part of town synonymous with low rents and sexual revolution. And, sin or no sin, he had shown no sign of being willing to give up her snatch in favor of hearing confessions or changing bread and wine into the body and blood of Christ.
“Marty! They’re throwing out my New York Review of Books!”
Which, along with old issues of the New York Times Book Review, the London Review of Books, Harper’s, the Atlantic Monthly (or was it just called the Atlantic again, as it had been in her youth?) and dozens of other periodicals that Tim subscribed to, he had stacked first in the unused bedroom and then, as space became contested there by his carpentry tools, in the narrow hallway, until she had to walk sideways just to get to the bathroom. They had stopped sharing the main bedroom when his accumulations caused her to fall and sprain her ankle. Ever since, she had been sleeping in the living-room, where the clutter was still confined to the walls, although even there it was piled almost to eye level.
He couldn’t get to her, trapped as he was in his wheelchair and no more able to move it down the clotted hallway than a horse could squeeze into a birdhouse. Since his fall she had had to bring him all his meals in the bedroom and empty what he referred to as his “chamber pot” several times a day. To get to him she had to thread her way through those same canyons of literature that, even when he was still mobile, he had only been able to negotiate by turning sideways. Now he sat most of the day in the few square feet of space not already taken up by the big bed he had built for them and by the stacks of books that had accumulated there because the bedroom had always been his principal reading room anyway, long before the hallways became impassable.
She wasn’t exactly limber herself, thanks to the spinal arthritis she had come down with a few years ago. But that didn’t stop him from expecting her to fly to his presence every time he became thirsty or hungry or the smell of his urine got to him because he refused summer or winter to open the room’s one window.
“Don’t encourage him,” Ratched warned as Marty squeezed through the space afforded by the entrance to the walk-in closet that had become a toilet for the live-in help they had hired when their daughter needed full-time nursing after she became paralyzed from the waist down following a skiing accident. Now that room was filled with an encyclopedia of home repair and half a dozen boxes of old tax returns and other records left over from a mail-order business Tim had once convinced her would provide a nice retirement income. All it ever actually provided was a lot of paperwork for her and hardly enough income to cover the mailings they sent out each week by the thousands.
“You can’t allow him to make exceptions. Otherwise we’ll be here all day and nothing will get thrown out.”
“I’ll try,” Marty said, making a face only after she had squeezed past the woman’s big buttocks, which felt disturbingly soft considering how solid she looked in that tight-fitting track suit. “I’ll do my best.”
He sat slumped slightly forward in his wheelchair. All that was actually visible of it was the big chrome wheels, the rest covered by his voluminous flesh. His hair, thin with an equal amount of gray and blond that made him look older than if it had been all gray, was still uncombed. Two days of stubble bristled on his pink, pendulous jowls. He did not look up when Marty appeared in the bedroom doorway.
“How could you do this?” he said quietly, as if he were asking the time or what she was planning to make for lunch. “Do you know what these books and papers mean to me?”
“Tim, you can’t even move out of this bedroom. You’re immured behind this shit, for Christ’s sake.”
He continued to stare down at his feet, then began to shake his head slowly. She thought he was about to reprimand her again and was preparing her next retort, determined to remain firm, when his heavy cheeks began to quiver and his incongruously thin mouth went into a spasm so violent that at first she thought he might be having a stroke.
“They’re all… I have,” he sobbed. “All… I fucking… have.”
She resisted the urge to thread her way through the narrow passageway to the foot of the queen-size bed to console him. That “all I have” strengthened her resistance. Did he not have her? True, they no longer slept in the same bed, but that was a matter of logistics. After ten years of separation, during which time she had borne almost all the burden of caring for a crippled daughter who had nevertheless graduated at the top of all her classes, they had chosen to live together again. And that was not because he needed someone to look after him. For six of the last eight years he had been well enough, though even then so obese that it now seemed foolish of her not to see coming the breakdown his body would eventually suffer.
Still, she thought as she watched his heavy shoulders, barely distinguishable from his massive neck and equally massive chest, shake like something independently alive from the rest of his body, it would be less than honest to call what they had now “love.” Love was what she had felt on a warm August afternoon 30 years ago, an emotion she had not thought possible during her first marriage to a man she had never ceased to live in awe of. She had, if any woman ever did, “thrown” herself at Timothy Curran the first moment she laid eyes on him, home for a few weeks leave from a seminary in Pennsylvania: a skinny, shy youth who looked even younger than the six years actually separating them. She had never been able to account for that first reaction she had to the sight of him slowly rising from a low futon sofa that was so popular among her friends who wanted to ape the lifestyle of the flower children in the ghettos of the Lower East Side and the Bay area. With his mop of blond hair and big luminescent eyes, he was certainly appealing. But he was not handsome the way her first husband, himself almost ten years older than her, had been. What was it about her fascination for older and younger men? What was it about that skinny seminarian that had ignited something so irresistible in her?
She had asked that question of herself and then later in psychiatrists’ offices any number of times over the last three decades. She had certainly never had anything like that feeling for any of the men she had dated during their separation. “Why don’t you stop fighting it and just go back to him?” her friends told her when she had complained about her lack of ardor for any of the one-night stands she had sought out during those years. Those women could never understand how she could take a position “on principle” about something as arbitrary, from their point of view, as her reason for leaving Tim. If it had been a question of another woman… even a man. But surely not something as insubstantial as her having to send her daughter to a Catholic high school. “It all has to do with their male ego, honey. So what if the girl goes to Catholic school? What’s the worst could happen? They won’t kidnap her, will they?”
“They’ll kidnap her mind,” she told them. “They’ll teach her to hate her body and believe every word that comes out of the mouths of celibate men who think God Almighty speaks through them and only through them.”
She didn’t realize then how close those women were to a religious tradition that was just as male-dominated and guilt-ridden as her own. She thought by being Jewish and New Yorkers they were by definition free of the angst that haunted lapsed, or as she now preferred to call herself, “recovering” Catholics. She knew there were entire neighborhoods of Orthodox Jews in the city where people stuck to the old beliefs and even to the old ways of dressing. But she had known folks like that in Pennsylvania, not just the picturesque Amish but their German-speaking cousins, the Mennonites. The first time she saw an Hasidic man, on the “F” train, she thought he must be a tourist from Lancaster county.
By then, separated from him, the physical bond she felt for her husband had moderated, but she still missed him at night, and when she read something in the Times or heard something on NPR that infuriated her, she wanted to turn to him for the lively discussion he had always been ready to provide. She could also have used some help caring for a wheelchair-bound teenager who, despite her disability, seemed to have all the appetites and ornery ways of any girl her age. Tim was still there on weekends, when she usually went to stay with a friend or visited her brother in New Jersey. But those visits only reminded her of his absence for the rest of the week when she awoke in terror in the middle of the night or got home from her teaching job and had to face an empty apartment more and more as her daughter began to spend most of her time with friends.
“You’ll still have your books,” she said after his shoulders stopped shaking and he finally raised his eyes from the patch of floor beneath the foot of his wheelchair. “Most of them, anyhow.”
She realized as soon as she spoke that this wasn’t quite true. He would still have his favorites—a full set of the Summa, his Chesterton, Nietzsche and Kierkegaard. But his paperback mysteries all had to go, even his precious Rex Stout. Four cartons were all Ms. Cratched allowed him. Perhaps 50 books. A tiny percentage of the thousands he had accumulated. But where were they to put any more than that in the one-bedroom apartment in the assisted-living complex they were moving to? And what about the fact that the move meant uprooting her from the city she had come to think of as home, never mind the dozens of friends she had here? What did she get to keep herself? A few CDs, a couple albums of photographs. They were moving back to his hometown, not far from the street where he had grown up, so he could be near his mother who was in a nursing home and only recognized her daughter-in-law when she was not in a demented daze, the same woman who once called her a common whore for seducing her son from a vocation she had so carefully cultivated since his early childhood.
“It isn’t mothers who grant religious vocations,” he used to retort when she accused him of being nothing more than a mama’s boy when he was sulking over the life he might have led as a priest. She had learned to spot the particular crease in his brow when his secular career was proving inadequate to his early ambitions of saving souls for Jesus and preaching to thousands of captive parishioners instead of drumming remedial English into sleepy teenagers who couldn’t care less if they ever learned to distinguish a noun from a pronoun.
But what could she expect? She had seen other priests manqués, brothers of girls she had grown up with. She had seen that same look on their faces, despite their facade of cheerfulness or at least resignation to a life of “single blessedness in the world” or as baby-makers for the church. She suspected half of them of being gay anyhow.
But Tim had been such a willing refugee from the seminary. She had gotten him into bed on their first “date”—a walk in the fields near his mother’s house the day she stopped by to visit his ailing sister. The only “bed” they shared that day was some damp leaves under the limbs of a big oak tree. Even so, she had seen from the volume of passion she awakened in him that he would never be the same after that, nor would she, for that matter. She knew as well that what she had done, or at least cooperated with, was tantamount to ruining his vocation, a mortal sin if she stopped to think about it. But she didn’t care, or maybe she did care and had seduced him willingly, culpably. She was only half a Catholic herself by that time, three years after her divorce from that handsome professor who had never aroused in her anything but a kind of a schoolgirl crush. What she had felt for Tim Curran that sticky August day was lust, and she had been glad to give in to it, too, as glad as she had ever been to do anything in her 28 years. Love came later, or perhaps was there from the start, masked by the power of their humid bodies grappling in the fallen leaves.
“What about your books? Your clothes and… stuff? Why am I the only one who has to throw things away?”
She had already discarded her mysteries, some of them favorites she had been accumulating since her teens. The only CDs she had kept were a few opera recordings—Leonora and the Beecham version of La Boheme. Her books she had left out on the sidewalk for anyone to pick up. In less than an hour they were gone, a lifetime’s reading dispersed hither and yon like seeds in the wind. At least they didn’t end up in a dumpster in black trash bags unceremoniously dropped into that big steel pit along with real trash contributed by neighbors who saw an opportunity to get rid of their own detritus for free. She couldn’t bear to watch. It was as if their life together was being carted away to end up in a landfill in South Carolina or wherever New York City was sending its trash nowadays. It was like being shorn of their common skin, the integument of their years together. Was there a living thing beneath that would survive its removal, like a hermit crab or whatever sea creature it was that shed its skeletal dwelling and then moved on to the next thing? Would there be a new life for her and Tim, not just cohabitation but real sharing, limited though their time may be?
“It’ll be okay,” she said. “After you lose some weight, they’ll be able to operate on your knees. Then you’ll be able to walk, and we can move back to the city.”
“You think so?” he said, raising his eyes for the first time. It was the same look he used to show when he was having one of his agonies about the priesthood. She would say to him, only half believing, that if it was God’s will he should have become a priest, or He wouldn’t have sent someone like her along to lead him astray that summer afternoon. Tim would laugh then and his qualms would disappear, at least for the moment. He couldn’t laugh today, but that was because he knew he was facing something more momentous now than whether he would get to play God every Sunday.
“Absolutely,” she said. “Or,” she said, stepping into the room to tidy him up a bit before going to the kitchen to fix lunch, “as that fellow in the newsstand says, inshallah.”
I’ve not stayed personally in contact with the plethora of ex-priests whom I once knew as priests. But I do know personally what a long, deep process it is to come to recognize and then to change some of the deepest assumptions about oneself, about life, about the world that are ingrained in our Catholic socialization as children. It’s a fascinating road, and I have never regretted walking it. I doubt I have reached its end. As your story suggests, it takes painful self-knowledge. But I also find it one of the most liberating explorations I have been privileged to take.
I agree. I’ve always admired those people who say they thought about the issue at the age of ten, and decided there was no God. I don’t mean “admire” necessarily for the conclusion they reached but for their ability to cast off an ingrained way of thinking with such aplomb.
Glad you enjoyed the story. Thanks for reading it.