“Mother Superior, may I borrow the car?”
Smiles grew in unison on the faces of the young novitiate and the Mother Superior. The canvas, upon which the second oldest human facial expression is painted, the two could not have been more dissimilar. The result was vivid (and audible) proof of the power of a meeting of opposites.
The young woman expressed, in the quickness of her grin, simple joy, so abundant in youth. One could be forgiven for thinking, ‘if she assessed the situation before reacting, she might be less disappointed with life’. Smooth skin and un-lined face seemed ill-equipped to hide the echo of her reactions to the world around her. Green eyes flashed above a smile showing white teeth; both capable of serving as warning and welcome. Of course, there was a certain matter of an extra half-inch of upturning on one side of that smile. A wisecrack fidgeted behind the grin, barely under control. She bent her head downwards in an effort to shade the uncomplicated joy taking possession of her face. She immediately glanced up, like a girl cautiously looking up beyond the edge of an umbrella, the better to judge the conditions around her.
The head of the convent, was an effective leader in large part because she never forgot what it was to be young. She heard the nun’s question and she remembered. Her eyes lit up as she watched across the polished expanse of her desk. The rest of her face, smooth brown leather (which, with each passing year, increasingly became wrinkled brown leather), was less agile than that of the younger woman. This decreased range of motion, the result of both practice of leadership and the effects of the responsibility she bore as Mother Superior. The clothing that marked membership in the Order, while both a badge of honor and a uniform of service, limited the range of physical expression available to the woman wearing it. As a result, intended or otherwise, there was an emphasis on the face for conveying both thought and emotion. The Mother Superior of St. Dominique’s convent watched the young nun react to her own words. It’s said that incongruity is the bedrock of humor, the multiple contexts of her question was proof. Laughter itself is prayer to the sometimes playfulness of everyday reality.
Sister Bernadine possessed an ability to ‘grin with her eyes’, that was all it took for Sister Margaret Ryan’s self-control to dissolve into laughter.
Maintaining her formal and authoritative posture, the Mother Superior raised one eyebrow and, with a deadpan that a professional comedian would envy, said, “If you’ve finished your chores, you may. I want you back home in time for dinner.”
Sister Ryan laughed with her entire body. Her arms, legs, torso and head resonated with her outburst of simple joy. Standing before the solid formality of the desk, she bent slightly at the waist, rocking gracefully, like a sapling waving in a strong breeze.
Sitting on the opposite side of the desk, Sister Bernadine laughed and the room, (and the building beyond), echoed her un-restrained laughter. A mountain rather than a sapling.
Finally the laughter died down. Everyday reality reasserted itself and Sister Margaret’s simple seven word question became…a simple seven word question.
“Your brother is still in the hospital?” The older woman’s voice held concern for the brother of the younger woman. The penetrating gaze in her eyes held concern for the younger woman.
“Yes. Last week, my mother called to tell me, just in passing, that Matt was running a fever and seemed to have the flu. Yesterday she called to say he was still running a fever and that his doctor insisted he be admitted to the hospital.” Sister Ryan frowned, her attempt to sound like she was relating routine news sounded anything but routine.
“Do me a favor and take Sister Cletus along with you.” The older woman’s tone was one of a simple, off-the-cuff suggestion.
Sister Ryan walked towards the door and stopped, “For moral support? I’m good. I’ve got everything under control. Nothing too exciting in my life this week.” She looked at the floor, as if afraid that locking eyes with Sister Bernadine would lay bare parts of her life she felt needed hiding. She was correct in her caution. However, she underestimated the other woman by an order of magnitude.
“No. Just want someone I trust to have your back.” The Mother Superior of St. Dominique’s looked down at her desk top. Her ability to concentrate formidable; had there been a door in the middle of the office between the two woman and she’d gotten up and closed it, that their conversation was over would not have been any clearer.
Celeste Ridgely felt a shiver pull at the skin beneath her shoulder blades as the small brass bell bounced on the curved hanger over the entrance to Renaude and Associates. Out of the corner of her eye she saw the old man standing in front of her desk. She hit her knee on the desk in her haste to turn and welcome the visitor. To her unconscious surprise, she was relieved to have a momentary excuse to put off facing the man.
“Good mornin, darlin. You mind tellin me if your boss is in this morning?” The softest of drawls almost covered a harsher accent, like a layer of fresh dirt on an old grave. Very blue eyes looking down at her tipped the impression of his voice in favor of the more familiar southern accent. The twenty-year-old girl was unable to refrain from giggling. She giggled right after looking up at the tall, smiling man, mostly because she was twenty years old. In her defense, twenty years is rarely enough time to develop the self-control to successfully hide the emotional jolt that results from going from dread to infatuated, without enough time to say hello.
Celeste tilted her head upwards, a small garden sunflower responding to un-imaginable power. A raised eyebrow caused her to come out of her trance and nod her head. She thought that the man looked like a cross between Matthew McConaughey and Ryan Gosling and wondered why she thought his hair was grey or that he was old. It was clear to her this visitor was very charming and not from Crisfield.
“Mmm… Miss?” The man reached over her desk, his dazzling smile migrating to his eyes and picked up the name plate on her desk. “Celeste? Beautiful name, my first serious girlfriend’s name was Celeste. Is Drusilla…”
Fumbling for the handset, she punched in the extension number, heard an annoying beeping noise, looked down at the display and re-entered the correct three digit code. She heard a tine, “Yes, Celeste? What…” then silence.
Looking up, ready to apologize for her boss, Celeste Ridgely completed the very short romantic arc that began with the sound of a bell. The broad, well-tailored back of the man was gliding down the aisle, past the empty agent desks, towards the back of the office. She felt a relief that had nothing to cling to and so, dissipated. Later, meeting friends after work, she would tell them, ‘…this man with incredible eyes came in to see Ms. Renaude. His smile was scary, sexy. He was kind of attractive.’
“Drusilla! I know I should have called ahead! I was dropping Arlen off after our visit to the very charming Martha’s Vineyard and I thought, ‘Why not stop and see Dru?’ So here I am. Hope I’m not interrupting anything important.”
“Let me help you with that seat belt, Sister Cletus.” I finished punching in the address of the hospital into the GPS and leaned over to get the loose end of her seat belt properly engaged. She smiled her thanks and closed her eyes. I tried to remember if I’d had the opportunity to drive her anywhere. I couldn’t remember and said a prayer that she wasn’t one of the older nuns who tended to get car sick. Securing my own seatbelt, I pulled out of the driveway and headed away from the convent.
Stopping at the sign at Rt 413, I turned right instead of left. Sister Cletus, without opening her eyes, said, “A side trip, young sister?”
“Just a short ride into town. I want to see if I can get lucky and…” I saw her right eye brow go up and her lips tighten their hold on what sounded like the first of an outburst of laughter. Forgetting to wonder how she knew where we were at the moment, seeing how there were at least 2 major and three minor turns on the route from the convent to Rt 413, I laughed.
“I mean, there’s a realtor in town that’s doing some work for a company that I’m interested in and I thought I might talk to the woman who owns it. The real estate company, not the company that’s foreclosing on my mother’s house.” I frowned, thinking that I was talking too much, looked at the road ahead and resolved to think before talking, at least for the rest of the day.
“That sounds like a delightful diversion,” Sister Cletus said with genuine enthusiasm, “The side trip into town, not your online campaign against the Bernebau people.” She looked out her passenger window. A very pale, daytime reflection grew in the window glass. It was of her, of course, but smoothed of the stress and corrugations of 80 years of life. Just for a second, I saw a young Sister Cletus.
We drove in silence the rest of the way to the small business district of Crisfield. Once we were on West Main St, the buildings grew taller and commercial in character. I saw the sign for the real estate company on the front of a building that appeared to have once been a department store. Back when there were department stores. As I drove by I could see that Renaude and Associates had the left half of the ground floor. The original plate glass showroom windows put most of the interior in view. There was a receptionist left of the door and one desk, exceptionally cluttered, on the far left. Beyond both were rows of desks with short dividers, looking, for some reason like old-fashioned spats in the otherwise modern business office.
The parking downtown was, like the ribs of a dinosaur, at an angle with the metal lollipops of parking meters marking each space. I tried to imagine how different the world must have been when they came up with that design. Easy enough to get into, but an insurance agent’s nightmare when backing out to leave. I was spared the decision, as there were no empty spots. A block further down West Main was the Post Office and beyond that, a small park that looked out towards the docks and the Bay beyond.
“Sister, I’ll only be a minute. I’ll park here by the Post Office, you’ll have a nice view of the boats and the water. Be back before you know it.” I was out of the SUV before I finished talking. I immediately felt guilty, turned, opened the driver’s door and put the keys in the ignition. “In case you want to listen to the radio.” I returned Sister Cletus’s smile, felt better and headed up the block to the real estate company.