Splinters in the Body of God

When I heard my brother-in-law was dead, I thought my sister had probably done it. Apparently I was the only one who thought so, because my sister, an aggressively born-again Christian, is a Perfect Person. A martyr. St. Hayley. I recalled a conversation we’d had years ago, when I’d been needling her about her newfound identity, reminding her of all the things she couldn’t do.
“No more adultery,” I said, although as far as I knew she’d never been unfaithful to that unfaithful

“True,” she’d remarked.

“No more lying. Not even tiny social lies. You’ll have to tell everybody the plain, unvarnished truth. No more friends.”

“That’s not true,” she’d said. “There’s a wider truth we must be faithful to. It’s spiritual dishonesty we have to fear. Spiritual dishonesty is a splinter in the body of God.”
Hear that? I call that “Jesuitical”. That kind of “I know better” reasoning can justify anything. My husband talks like that, but he’s a lawyer. He says there’s no truth, only juries.
“How about justice?” I’d demanded and she smiled at me with that superior smile.
“God’s in charge of justice.”

See? A person like that could justify murder! Then she made it worse by talking about how there’s always both forgiveness for sin and sin. If you can be forgiven at the last minute, no matter what you’ve done, can’t you ultimately get away with anything? It bothers me because it’s so obvious, but I can’t get anyone to agree.

“Think she did it?” I asked my husband.

“Hayley? She’d have to stand in line,” Simon.snorted. “Plenty of people had a bigger motive than she did.”

That wasn’t true. There was all that insurance money, plus she’d had to live with him every day. The screaming, the vomiting, the violence. Dave was a piece of work. Now she was free to do whatever she wanted. Sell the house, take a cruise, live abroad. Of course by her lights she couldn’t have sex without marrying someone, but maybe that doesn’t matter either, with forgiveness shimmering eternally on the horizon. On the other hand, that kind of money brings parasites. I’ve heard women in abusive relationships are closet masochists. Right out of the frying pan and into the fire.
“If she did it, would you defend her?” I asked my husband.

“Nah,” he said, knotting his tie. Busy guy. Always on his way to somewhere, looking like a fashion plate as always. “Shouldn’t have a relative for a client.” He considered. “Unless she couldn’t get anybody else.”

“If I murdered you, would Al defend me?” I teased.

“That would be tougher.” He laughed. “You wouldn’t be ridding the world of an incubus, you’d be robbing the universe of a first class litigator.”

He has an answer for everything. Litigators “She did it,” I said. “I know.”I don’t know why I kept after him. Maybe I have to.because it’s so rare that when he looks at me, he’s thinking
thoughts with me in them.“I doubt she’d have the strength,” he told
me. “Somebody gave Dave’s head a pretty good pop.”

“So she hired someone. Of course she’d be in that person’s power forever.” Masochistic, right?
“Or somebody did her a favor,” my husband returned. “Danger invites rescue. You think chivalry is dead?”

He’s supposed to be the cynical one!

At the funeral I searched Hayley’s face. I don’t know what I expected to see. The Mark of Cain? What I did see was a person tired and worn, who hadn’t been sleeping. No makeup, hair a mess, black jacket and white skirt — at a funeral? She looked more the way she looked when Dave was acting up. Of course maybe getting your head bashed in behind a bar is the ultimate act-up.
She gave me a hug. Can’t ask a person if they’re a killer, not in the receiving line. I was forced to move on. After the receiving line she rushed upstairs. I saw a friend of hers from Al Anon take up a plate of food and what looked like a glass of wine. Why not? She wasn’t the one with the problem.
I chose a seat with Simon and the lawyers. Telling war stories as usual. Simon’s partner Al waved a sandwich at me to acknowledge my presence.

“Good eats,” he said. Like I had anything to do with it. Woman equals food in his equation. I took advantage of the pause in their conversation to revert to my favorite topic.

“Think they’ll catch the guy that did it?” I
“If he’s dumb enough to use the credit cards,” said Al.
“You’d think he would have taken Dave’s car,” I suggested. “Clean getaway.”

Al shrugged. “Must have had a car of his own.”
“Some “desperate thief”, then. What was Dave even doing there? The bartender said he wasn’t even drinking in that bar.”
“So he got loaded somewhere else,” said Al.

“Those guys always lie,” said Simon, wiping his mouth with the hand that wears the law school ring. Ugly bulky tacky thing. “Bartenders. They don’t want trouble.”

See? No joy for me in this situation. Everyone was celebrating Dave’s death. Good riddance, they were thinking. I imagined our situations reversed, with me the widow and Hayley attending Simon’s wake. Simon’s family is Italian, there would be a lot of screaming and crying, I can tell you. He supports everyone. Would Ihave the nerve to disappear, the way Hayley had done? No, I’d have to stay to be pawed over and criticized. Everything I do is wrong. Thank God I only see those people once a year.
If Simon died, I’d take a cruise first thing. Although I should probably go to the gym for a year before putting on a swimsuit. We have a family membership but only Simon uses it – who has the time? Hayley is thin enough but those stretch-marks of hers make her look like she’s been clawed by a tiger. She needs surgery but of course she can afford it now.

I got the idea at the super market. I was standing in line, scanning the impulse purchases, and they had a stack of those lined tablets people who never write letters buy when they have to write a letter. Of course I‘d need one of those untraceable self-stick envelopes: no DNA. Use gloves. Simon says they get fingerprints off paper, now, all the time.

It was so much fun. I wrote the letter with my left hand. No way they could trace it to me. I wrote, I SAW WHAT YOU DID AND YOU WON’T GET AWAY WITH IT and signed it GOD. A hoot, right? I used a “Love” stamp (nice touch) and the address was one of those return stickers my sister puts in her Heart Association collection drive packets. Must be tons of those around! Then I mailed it at the box closest to her house – it’s on my route to the hairdresser – I didn’t even have to get out of the car. Just thinking about it gave me pleasure for days, although I wished I as there when she opened it.

Two days was all I could stand. I called her right before lunch.

“Hayley? It’s Maxine. How are you holding up?”
“Better. First night without pills.”

Maybe she hadn’t opened it. I cursed the Heart Association sticker idea. If she thought it was a donation maybe someone else opened it. Didn’t tell her, threw my letter away.
“Anything I can do? Need food?”

“God, no. The freezer’s groaning.” She hesitated. “You could come over tonight and pack up Dave’s things for Goodwill. My women’s group is coming. I warn you – there will be praying.”
Great! “No thank you,” I said stiffly. “Anything but that.” Dave wouldn’t have allowed her “witches” anywhere near his house. I imagined lengthy ceremonies to evict his drunken, aggressive spirit. Possibly they would even try to intercede for his sodden, bossy soul. Ugh. Let’s face it. Dave belongs in hell. But he won’t be alone there.

“Could you take Kevin and Deanie for the weekend? I’m going on retreat.”
“Sure,” I heartily agreed. “No problem. James and Heather love being with their cousins.”
“Thanks,” she said. “I’ll set it up.”

Now aren’t I a good sister? But when I got home Simon had strewn our marital bed with suits and shirts. Packing for a trip. It’s a kingsize so I still found a place to perch.

“Hey,” I said, “I just agreed to take Kevin and Deanie for the weekend.”

“Not like they’re any trouble,” he told me, carefully matching socks and ties. He’s fussy about his clothes. He always looks good. A litigator is an actor, he says. “Trial Lawyers Association. Gotta go. The kids’ll be fine with movies and pizza. Video games. Isn’t that all they care about?”
He has no idea in hell what looking after four kids single-handedly is like.
“Back Sunday night,” said Simon. “I’ll be at the Helmsley Palace.”

The Helmsley Palace! That’s where we had our honeymoon! Such a wave of erotic longing washed over me I almost came all over myself then and there. Simon was such a good lover, and I was a virgin. But every time I told him to stop he stopped. It took us technically – a whole week to become man and wife. But what a week! Had I felt such arousal since? God knows where Simon got such control – I didn’t know and I didn’t ask. Both of us have tried telling our kids during “facts of life” discussions that you don’t have to go “all the way” to achieve the sexual nirvana MTV is telling them is out there, but I suspect it’s falling on deaf ears. Along with everything else we say.
Single-parenting is not for sissies. The video was plugged in, the pizza was ordered and I was making popcorn when Deanie came in to tell me she’d forgotten her retainer. Perfect. Of course I said I’d go, telling Jamie in the garage — he was showing Kevin his dirt bike — that he was in charge for an hour and giving him the pizza money. They’ve got my cell number.

Felt a surge of independence climbing into the car and driving down the darkened street. No wonder Simon loves leaving us behind, all warm and cozy, headed off to his other life. Well I have another life too! I’m an Anonymous Letter Writer. Plus now I’m Maxine, Girl Detective, searching for the bloodied sledgehammer or the hitman’s threat note: Pay Up or Else.”

Hayley’s house was substantially different without Dave’s dark spirit. You could just feel it. That hideous den of his was emptied of its ugly sports memorabilia and beer signs; repainted and furnished with chintz and wicker. You could just see the church ladies sitting down to their cups of tea.

But when I entered Hayley’s bedroom I got the worst shock. It was completely empty, carpet torn up, furniture gone. Like she was running away. Except there were ladders and tarps and paint swatches. She was erasing him from her life. Who could blame the lucky bitch? But my problem is, where to search when your suspect has no desk, no bedside table and everything’s in boxes? I’d waited too long.

She’d moved into the guest bedroom, a monastic cubicle with a cross above the single bed. But there was a bedside table, and the table had a Bible, and the Bible was stuffed with papers, and that’s where I found what I was looking for.

It didn’t have an address, it didn’t even have a signature but I hope I know my husband’s handwriting. He said he respected her decision but his feelings would never change. That he would always be “there” for her. He said, “I want you to know there’s someone on this planet who loves you utterly.”

When I took the letter I was blind with pain and rage. It was like he’d killed something in me with that letter. Something in me was stillborn because it needed another person to bring it to life and I had never had that person. Because my own husband was “there” for someone else.
Was she “rewarding” him right now at the Helmsley Palace? Was she speaking to his hands the way I used to, saying “here” and “here” and “here”? Faster, slower, deeper? And whose fault was that? Not mine, because I had always done everything that was ever expected of me. I took the letter because I knew then I could make him finally speak the truth to me. But what happens if the truth is that I’m alone and I’ve always been alone and I’ll always be alone? Where’s the justice in that?

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