Excerpt – Absence of Grace

 

Chapter One

1962 – 1963

 

 

Colorado Springs, Colorado

“Hon,…we need to talk.”

Her least favorite words, especially when they came from her mother.

“Michelle Marie, there’s something we…“ The girl winced at the use of her given name, but that wince gave way to alarm at the sight of both her parents standing in the doorway to her bedroom.

Quickly, she reviewed the past month, searching for a transgression to explain their obvious distress. There was the paper airplane incident during honors English, but she’d already done her penance for that. So…could they have learned she planned to ditch the college wardrobe picked out by Mom with such love and determination? The boys had figured it out, and she’d threatened them with excruciatingly painful deaths if either of them said a word. Still, a clothes contretemps would hardly explain Dad’s upset.

Mom sat on her bed, while Dad hovered. “You know that fainting episode Josh had?”

Joshua hit a home run in his last Little League game, but he’d passed out crossing home plate. Very scary. But he was fine after he drank some water and sat in the shade awhile–so what was the problem?

Dad’s hand came to rest on Mom’s shoulder. “The doctors did some tests.” He drew in a breath. “Joshua has leukemia.”

Leukemia? It made her feel light and floaty, untethered, like that time she rode the rollercoaster at Elitches and couldn’t stop shaking for an hour afterward. Joshua and Jason could be real pains. But that, after all, was younger brothers’ territory. She yelled at them sometimes. Okay, a lot. They were brats. But this…

Her throat tightened. “He’s going to be okay, isn’t he?”

“Of course he is.” Mom’s words sounded more incantation than certainty, and it didn’t help when her eyes filled with tears.

“What about Jase? Is he okay?”

“Of course,” Dad said.

But there was no ‘of course’ about it. Joshua and Jason were identical twins.

“They were both tested,” Mom said. “Jason is fine.”

“I guess I better stay home. Not go to college.” They were the hardest words she had ever said. She’d been looking forward to college with a desperation she hadn’t admitted to anyone. Had barely admitted to herself. And that despite the fact Marymead, like her wardrobe and hairstyle, were more her Mom’s choice than hers.

Her mother sat up straight and blew her nose. “Of course, you’re going to college, Michelle. Joshua is going to be just fine.”

She should have felt relieved, but somehow she didn’t.

 

 

Marymead College ‑ Mead, Kansas

She left for college on a Greyhound bus. It wasn’t the original plan, but her mother had to be in Denver for Joshua’s treatment, and her father couldn’t take the time off. In some ways, though, taking the bus made it easier to leave.

Despite the fact her mother wasn’t there, she still wore one of the outfits her mother had chosen. But at the dinner stop in Limon,  she replaced the full-skirted dress with slacks and a tailored shirt. She also cut her hair, something she hadn’t had the heart to do before. Peering into the wavy mirror in the bus stop rest room, she did the best she could, although the result wasn’t even close to the pixie cut she’d envisioned. But then, she was no pixie.

The boys were the ones who’d inherited Mom’s delicate bone structure. She took after Dad. In his case, tall and awkward was endearing. On her? Well, suffice it to say she made it all the way through high school without anyone asking her on a date.

When she climbed back on the bus, the driver frowned and asked to see her ticket. He examined it thoroughly before waving her aboard, still frowning. She accepted  that lack of recognition as a sign her transformation was a success.

Since there was nobody in the seat beside her, she turned sideways and curled her feet under her. Bits of snipped hair had slipped down her neck, and they itched, making it difficult to doze off. Although that was okay, since she didn’t really want to sleep. Instead she wanted to savor this transition from past to future.

She looked around the bus, imprinting it on her memory—the dark interior with only a few reading lights illuminating dozing occupants—as the vibration of the engine settled into a steady rhythm on the flat road.

She ran fingers through her now short hair and looked toward the window, encountering there an image of herself overlaid on the darkness outside. An unexpected vision, that girl with her straight nose, lips neither thick nor thin, and jaw firmer than most. Her eyes, which appeared darker than they actually were, held in their depths a hint of both excitement and trepidation.

She fluffed what was left of her hair, staring at that girl, beginning to smile. Yes, at last. She looked like herself. Like Clen. Despite the itching, the steady hum of the tires eventually lulled her to sleep.

When the bus arrived in Mead, she stepped into the cool pre-dawn and stretched, savoring the feeling of delicious anticipation.

A man leaning on the door of a yellow cab straightened and ambled over. “You heading for the college, Miss?”

When she said she was, he loaded her suitcases in his trunk. Then he climbed in and looked at her in the rear‑view mirror. “Wasn’t sure you was a Marymead girl at first. Don’t look like one, that’s for sure.” Not exactly a ringing endorsement of her new look.

Suddenly nervous, she peered out the window as the taxi began the gradual climb from the downtown to the college. The sun wasn’t up yet, but it was light enough for her to see the pale bulk of Marymead’s main building, vaguely gothic and definitely churchy, looming over the town.

The cab pulled into the sweep of drive in front of that building. “They expecting you this early?” the driver asked as she paid the fare.

“I told them I was arriving on the morning bus.”

“Well, I expect you oughta just go ahead and ring the bell then. The good Sisters get up early. Likely someone will hear.” He unloaded her suitcases then drove off.

When the bell wasn’t answered right away, she sat on the steps next to her things, readying herself to appear relaxed and confident to whomever appeared. After several minutes the door creaked open and a tall, slender nun dressed in garb as medieval in appearance as the building stepped out. Her face, framed by wimple and veil, was beautiful.

“Michelle McClendon?”

She cleared her throat and took a breath. “Clen. Everyone calls me Clen.” There. She’d done it. Finally. Told someone the name she’d chosen for herself.

The nun folded her hands within the flowing black sleeves of her habit and tipped her head. Then she nodded. “Clen. It suits you. Welcome to Marymead. I’m Sister Thomasina.”

“Like the cat.”

“Ah, a reader. Did you like Gallico’s story?”

“It was sad.”

“Yes, indeed it was.” Thomasina paused as if waiting for more, but Clen was suddenly too tongue‑tied to add anything. The nun’s eyebrows twitched giving her an amused look. “Breakfast is in an hour. Meanwhile, I suggest you unpack and change into something more appropriate.” She paused with a flicker of a frown. “You did review the orientation booklet? It gives details about what is acceptable dress.”

“Orientation booklet?”

“You didn’t receive it?”

She had been a college woman less than two minutes, and already she’d messed up. But with Joshua’s illness, none of the McClendon family had exactly been on top of things lately. Still it should have occurred to her a Catholic women’s college would have rules.

 

 

Lots of rules. And while her roommates got demerits for coming in late from dates or sneaking out at night during the week, Clen got them for leaving books sitting on her bed or for running to get to class on time. But most of her demerits were awarded for her continued flouting of the clothing canon.

Within a breathtakingly short time she’s amassed a sufficient number to confine her to campus for the rest of the year. That was when Sister Thomasina sent for her.

“Clen.” Thomasina gestured toward the chair at the side of her desk. “What are we going to do with you?”

“Wouldn’t you rather be a nun than a nanny?” Popping off without thinking her father called it, but when she saw Thomasina was struggling not to smile, she relaxed.

“Marymead’s rules are meant to help us live peacefully together.” Thomasina’s voice was mild.

“I’m afraid I don’t understand how leaving books on my bed or wearing slacks to class interferes with that peace. At least I made the bed and I’m not running around naked.” Clen was absolutely certain this time Thomasina was fighting back a smile.

“Well, if you wore a skirt, as the rules require, it would certainly make life more peaceful for Sister Angelica.” Thomasina tapped her fingers on the desk and examined Clen. “Do you know why we have rules about dress?”

“We are Christian young women.” Clen’s voice fell into a singsong chant. “Our bodies are temples of the Holy Spirit, therefore, we must clothe them with dignity and conduct ourselves with propriety.”

“I see you’ve finally read the orientation booklet.”

“But we aren’t nuns in training, you know. Besides, you can hardly hold yourselves up as fashion examples.”

“There’s a saying, when in Rome do as the Romans do.”

“Julius Caesar. Act two. Scene one.”

“You’re guessing, Clen, and not accurately.”

She knew she needed to cool it, but she was having too much fun. “So…does Sister Demonica’s peace trump the majority’s legitimate desire for more freedom?”

“Sister Demonica?”

“I think you’ll have to agree, Angelica is a misnomer. And anyway, isn’t peace in the eye of the beholder?”

Thomasina smiled, for real this time, and shook her head. The sharp movement made the starched band of white across her forehead dig in leaving a red mark. “We still need rules, Clen. Although I will grant you lots of things are changing.”

Thomasina had to be referring to the Second Vatican Council, currently in full swing in Rome and shaking up the lives of Catholics, both lay and religious.

“Perhaps it is time we reconsidered,” Thomasina said. “I don’t believe the rules have been updated since I was a student, and I’ll grant you, we didn’t keep all of them either.”

“Yet you became a nun, and now you have even more rules.”

That put a thoughtful look on Thomasina’s face which emboldened Clen further. “So why did you do it?”

“Do what?”

“Become a nun.”

Thomasina stared past Clen out the window. “I came to a fork in the road, and this seemed the more…interesting path.”

“But are you happy?”

“I’m certainly happy more than I’m unhappy.”

“You must have some regrets, though. Didn’t you ever want to get married? Have children?”

“Everyone has or will have regrets.” Thomasina spoke slowly, and her expression altered to one of such melancholy, Clen regretted her impertinence.

For the first time she saw a nun as a woman rather than as a slightly alien being. But why would someone as beautiful as Thomasina choose a life that required her to wear thick black serge accessorized with bits of white starched to a painful stiffness?

“Did you do it to guarantee you’d get to heaven?”

“If I were living this life merely to earn a few gold stars, it’s unlikely I’d be happy even some of the time.”

“Perhaps you would.” Although really, Clen had no idea.

“If that were my reason, I’d spend all my time trying to decide if I was pious enough or doing sufficient good deeds. I’d be living a life ruled by shoulds and musts. I’d be miserable, and likely everyone around me would be as well.” Thomasina’s sorrowful expression had altered, and her words were once again crisply delivered. “Besides, I very much doubt God is keeping score.”

“Then it shouldn’t matter what we do.”

Thomasina gave her a long steady look while Clen tried not to squirm. “There is one other thing you should have noted in your reading of the orientation booklet, Clen. Any student exceeding one hundred demerits in a semester is not allowed to return.”

At the rate she was acquiring them one hundred was not going to present a problem—a thought that made Clen’s chest feel tight and sore.

“Is that what you want?”

“No.”

Thomasina leaned forward as if unable to hear her response.

Close to panic, Clen cleared her throat. “No.”

“Well then, let’s see if we can agree on something here. If I give you permission to leave campus, do I have your assurance you will buy appropriate clothing? Clothing you will wear for classes and meals?”

“Yes.”

“Good. I wouldn’t want to send you away, Clen. I believe you’re going to be good for Marymead, and I hope Marymead will benefit you, as well.”

Clen left the meeting with Thomasina determined to stop getting demerits. She did want to stay at Marymead, despite her worries about how well Josh was doing.

She hadn’t told anyone about her brother, not wanting that to color all her interactions, although the only person observant enough to remark on Clen’s occasional bad days was Maxine. Maxine had also been the one who re‑trimmed Clen’s hair, with a far superior result to what Clen had achieved. And so it was Maxine Clen consulted about the formal her mother had insisted she buy to attend Marymead dances.

“You may want to go to a dance sometime, you know,” Maxine said, shaking out folds of pink taffeta and tulle sprinkled with rhinestones.

“If I do, I am not doing it in that dress.”

“Why didn’t you tell your mom you didn’t like it?”

“I tried, but she has this idea of me, and that’s the dress that fit.”

Maxine sighed. “It’s a beautiful dress.”

“Just not for me.”

Maxine held the dress up and peered at Clen. “You may be right about that.” She smoothed the tulle and sighed again. “Too bad it won’t fit me. I suppose you could sell it. A couple of the seniors are tall enough.”

“Mom would kill me.” But only if she found out, which was unlikely. Stella, caught up dealing with Josh’s illness, would hardly notice one missing dress. “Okay, go for it. I’ll give you twenty‑five percent.”

“Done. So…are you going to the meeting tonight?” Maxine asked, as slipped the dress back into the closet. “Rumor is the student council president wants to find out why we’re so dead set against all the rules.”

Clen snorted. “Maybe she can explain how she’s managed to put up with them for three years.”

“What I intend to ask is why they can’t set the darn clock to the correct time.” Maxine had earned her only demerits for arriving back from a date at the last possible minute, only to discover the grandfather clock that kept official Marymead time was five minutes fast.

“I think Thomasina may be coming over to our side,” Clen said.

“And you think that because?”

“In my last meeting with her, she admitted she didn’t keep all  the rules when she was a student.”

“I’ll just bet she didn’t.” Maxine grinned. “She hides it well, but I believe there’s a subversive side to Thomasina.”

 

Chapter Two

1982

 

Atlanta, Georgia

Entering Melton’s office, Clen’s gaze was drawn to the large oil painting on the wall behind his desk. From a distance, it was clearly a matador delivering the killing stroke, but up close it was dark swathes of crimson, umber, and black with an occasional slash of yellow. And although it was reportedly worth a great deal of money, Clen was glad she didn’t have to spend her days beneath its brooding presence.

Melton, a short, dapper man with a brisk delivery, glanced up from the pages he was marking. “Ah, Clen. Excellent. I need you to substitute for me at the Prism shareholder meeting in New York tomorrow morning. You don’t have to speak, just show the flag, take good notes. My secretary has the tickets and itinerary. Flight leaves this afternoon at three‑thirty.”

“That doesn’t give me much time.” Clen had been warned Melton had a habit of dumping assignments on junior associates at the last minute, but this was the first time he’d done it to her.

His manicured hand dismissed her with what she dubbed his Pope wave. “It’s only overnight. Still, I know you women always need time to pack.”

Right. As if he didn’t.

“You can leave now. If you feel you must.” He waved again, dismissing her.

So generous of him to give her four hours notice, and without even a token effort to explain why he was unable to attend.

 

Three hours later, hot and out of breath, Clen sank into a seat in the Delta Crown Room at the Atlanta airport. She drew in a slow, careful breath and let it out, glancing around the room to find Paul sitting twenty feet away with a woman wearing a tight red sundress. He’d supposedly left for Chicago this morning, so what was he doing here? And the woman—this was a business associate? If so, she was way overdue for the dress‑for‑success chat.

The woman lifted a straw tote onto her lap. Decorated with brightly colored flowers and a large “Virgin Islands” stitched across the top, it was the twin of the bag Paul discouraged Clen from buying on their honeymoon by labeling it “tourist‑tacky.”

White earrings banged against the woman’s jaw as she dug in the bag. When her hand emerged, it held a dark‑blue ticket folder that matched her long fingernails.

Before Clen could react, Paul and the woman gathered their belongings and walked out. Clen got unstuck and followed. The concourse was crowded, and Clen kept track of the two by watching Paul’s head bob along. Finally his head bobbed to the right and when she reached that spot, it was just in time to see the two walking through a boarding doorway.

Paul had the woman’s straw tote on his shoulder and his hand planted in a proprietary fashion in the middle of her bare back. Clen looked from the now empty doorway to the flight information posted behind the desk.

Destination: St. Thomas.

And there wasn’t a single business reason for Paul to be going there. Which meant…this was exactly what it first appeared to be. Her husband was having an affair.

Clen groped her way to an empty seat where nausea and dizziness held her in place as she struggled to accept this shift in her world. Paul, going off, not to Chicago with a business associate, but to St. Thomas with a woman.

If she had just accepted the evidence sooner, she could have done…something, although it was her nature to hesitate. In fact, her customary ‘pause to consider’ underpinned most of her professional success. Always, always she looked before she leaped, but if there had ever been a time to simply leap, this was it. Maybe walk up to the woman and give one of those gaudy earrings a sharp yank. Although no telling what might have happened next…

 

Financial Analyst Arrested for Assaulting Husband and Woman Companion at Airport.

 

Except. Paul wasn’t worth it. That much was blindingly clear.

Her mind spun tossing up bizarre thoughts. The handfuls of water she tossed at Paul on their honeymoon in St. Thomas, the two of them laughing as they played together. And how could that lead to this…this duplicity of Paul’s with a squatty, heavily‑bosomed blonde? A woman so dissimilar to Clen, she might as well have come from another planet. A woman he was taking to St. Thomas where he would kiss those bright, overdrawn lips and unzip that too‑tight dress, reaching out to fondle those…mammaries. God, they couldn’t possibly be real, could they?

Another wave of nausea hit, and Clen clamped a hand over her mouth until it abated. She may not have deserved Paul’s unconditional love, but she surely didn’t deserve such a graceless betrayal. She looked around, struggling to remember which direction she’d come from, trying to figure out where she now needed to go.

Crowds of people strode purposefully past. Men in suits carrying briefcases and looking harried. Women, most wearing colorful dresses except for the few like her in business attire. Everything so unbearably normal. She took a deep breath, stood, and stepped into that flow, leaving it again when she reached a rest room. With shaking hands she scooped water into her mouth and then onto her face. She didn’t look in either the mirror or at the women who bustled around her. Just moments earlier, she, too, had been bustling, with somewhere to go. Then, just like that, her bustle was…gone.

She reclaimed her carry‑on from the Crown Room and drove home to the large, formal house that was more Paul’s taste than hers. She left her suitcase by the back door and leaned on the kitchen counter staring out at the perfectly groomed backyard.

Okay. Now what?

She needed to call Melton, of course, although, at the moment, it was difficult to give a flying fig about him, the trip to New York, or her job. Still, better to not burn too many bridges until she had time to think things through.

So…Melton first. And her excuse? Bad traffic, an accident? Definitely not the truth—that she was undone by the discovery her husband was taking another woman to St. Thomas.

At the thought, a wave of emotion swamped her—anger, hurt, but perhaps not much surprise, and floating on top, the hopelessness she thought she’d left behind long ago.

She lifted the phone, and without further debate about what she was going to say, dialed Melton’s number. “Is he there?”

“Clen?” The voice of Melton’s secretary, usually so cool and efficient, held a hint of raised eyebrows. “Aren’t you supposed to be on your way to New York?”

“That was the plan. I missed the flight.”

“Oh. Do you have a cold? You sound stuffed up.”

“Something like that.” For sure, she felt miserable.

“Well, it serves him right,” the secretary said. “He’s always doing that. Palming stuff off because he’s decided he’d rather squeeze in a round of golf or something. I’ll call New York and tell them he can’t make it, and I’ll tell him you were hit with a stomach virus. Just be sure you take a couple of days off.”

Hard to believe it could be that easy. If only everything was—like deciding what to do about Paul.

The option that first came to mind was to go upstairs and tear apart his closet of meticulously organized suits and ties. But although  a demolished wardrobe would upset him, it wouldn’t rock his world the way hers had been rocked.

Another possibility was to flee, taking nothing, not even extra underwear or a toothbrush. But if she did that, Paul would contact the authorities.

No. There had to be other more dignified, more creative…more useful ways of handling this. Suddenly, she knew exactly where to begin.

 

 

The night Paul returned from St. Thomas, Clen waited until he changed clothes and came back downstairs.

“We need to talk,” she said.

“Can’t it wait? I’m tired, and I have a report to go over before tomorrow morning.” He placed a cup of coffee in the microwave and set the timer.

“Sorry. It can’t.” The car was packed and she was ready to drive to the Peachtree Plaza where she’d already registered.

“Can you keep it short?”

“Sure. Can do. I’m leaving you.” The unexpected rhyme pleased her.

The microwave pinged, but she’d managed to pull his attention away from both coffee and report. “What? What on earth are you talking about?”

“I.. am.. leaving.. you.”

He looked so shocked, she felt, briefly, like smiling.

“You can’t mean it.”

“Oh, but I do, Paul.” She pushed away the memory of his lips on hers, his hands touching her with easy familiarity as they made love. No. Not love. Sex. But those lips had lied and those hands…

“Is it another man?”

Wild laughter tickled the back of her throat. “No, Paul. It’s a woman.”

Laughter continued to threaten as his expression segued from shock to irritation. “You can’t be serious.”

“I’ve transferred my share of our assets into a separate account. I’m leaving you the equity in the house and its furnishings. Here are the figures.” She handed him the sheet of paper with the details of what she’d done.

“You still haven’t given me a reason,” he said, taking the paper from her.

“Oh I don’t know. Does St. Thomas ring any bells?”

“What? Of course it does. We went there on our honeymoon.”

“In June, nineteen seventy. So how many times have you been back? And before you answer, don’t forget this week.”

He looked discomfited but for only a moment. “What do you expect? A man has needs.”

“I never refused you, Paul.”

“And you made damn sure I knew what a martyr you were.”

His anger coming at her in waves began to distort the fragile internal harmony she’d managed to recover in the days he’d been gone. Further, the blatant dishonesty of his words took her breath away. When she got it back, she almost said, you sure never worried if you were meeting my needs. But she didn’t want to get into a nuclear exchange with him. Nothing to be gained. Not anymore.

“You plan to marry her?”

“Who?”

“The lady in red.”

They stared at each other until Paul looked away.

“What’s her name?”

He cleared his throat. “Amber.”

The line, ‘amber waves of grain’, from “America the Beautiful” popped into Clen’s head. Once again she struggled not to laugh.

Paul scrubbed a hand through his hair. “Hell, I don’t know. She can’t cook.” His face reddened, so perhaps he realized how self‑centered that sounded.

He shifted his feet, then he began to read the paper she’d handed him. “Whoa. You’ve appropriated more than your share.” Only five minutes in and he already had the aggrieved spouse act down pat.

“Actually, I’ve been extremely generous.”

“Oh, come on, Clen. There’s no need for this.” A wheedling note distorted his rich baritone. “We make a good team.”

Not only unfaithful, but delusional. “You do realize you didn’t say, don’t leave me because I love you.”

“That goes without saying, babe.”

“Yes, it’s pretty much gone without saying for thirteen years.”

“I don’t recall hearing it all that often myself.”

“You may be right.” She paused, gazing at him with more attention than she had in a while.

He glanced away.

“So tell me. Why did you marry me, Paul?”

“What?”

“Did you love me?”

“Of course.”

“And now you don’t.”

He rubbed his forehead then glared at her. “What is love anyway?”

“You must have some idea if you claim to have felt it.”

“Hells bells, Clen, stop being so damn analytical. That’s the problem you know. Love is…excitement, spontaneity, the thrill of the chase.”

“And then you caught me, and the thrill was gone.”

“I didn’t say that.”

“Is that why you didn’t want children?”

He looked away from her. “I thought you didn’t want them. And I was good with that.”

“No, you didn’t think that at all.”

He shifted, turning sideways, as if to leave, and yet he stayed.

“I think love is unselfish, intimate, honest.”

“There,” he said. “That’s it in a nutshell. We see the world in fundamentally different ways.”

“How odd we never noticed.”

Possibly, it was the most honest they’d ever been with each other. Too bad they’d left it until it no longer mattered.

Paul pulled in a breath, then sighed and dropped his gaze from hers. “What are your plans?” He asked the question in the same offhand way he often asked how her day had been.

She’d always suspected he didn’t care about her answers, and so this last time she didn’t try to give him one. There was no longer any point. They’d become that couple in the Audrey Hepburn movie, Two for the Road.

Question: What kind of people don’t even try to talk to each other?

Answer: Married people.

Continue Reading