– Chapter 14 –
Maranatha had heard, years ago, that the Agees lived in a mansion. According to the inter-church gossip circuit, it was a gated twelve-acre estate high on a hill and surrounded with flowering trees that made their home invisible from the road. At Christmas, they hosted Gatsbyesque soirees, opening their house to other area pastors and a few select families of their 5,000-member congregation.
Before Gideon came back to Ridgewood to teach, when Maranatha was around thirteen, her mother and stepfather were invited to one of the Agees’ parties. Anne had been invited to preach at a women’s ministry banquet at their church earlier that year. Children weren’t allowed at the party, so Maranatha was forced to stay home with a sitter, dreaming up tables filled with crab puffs and caviar; a twelve-foot tree trimmed in glitter and gold leaf; a live jazz band playing carols as guests tippled sparkling cider; and Gideon home on holiday, regaling guests with stories of post-college life.
She’d never gotten to tell him that she’d thought of him long before he resurfaced, wondering what he might look like or if he had children or whether she’d ever see him again. Maybe he knew. Maybe he figured it, but didn’t quite care.
As it turned out, the house wasn’t quite as palatial as Maranatha had imagined it all these years. It was stone and brick with beautiful bay windows and a sprawling, impeccably manicured lawn, but it wasn’t exactly a compound with a family crest over the threshold and horse stables in the backyard.
That Maranatha was able to pry her hands from her steering wheel, after working up the nerve to park in the Agees’ graveled driveway, was a marvel, but she managed it. She couldn’t tell if anyone was home. There were no silhouettes of movement behind the sheer, silvery curtains on their front windows, and any cars that may’ve been there were probably parked in their double-garage. What would she do if one of his parents answered? Would their eyes still shoot laser-like contempt and disdain? Would they glare at her through the peephole and yell that she should leave before she inflicted any further damage on their family?
She’d always wanted to apologize to them. On occasion, she still strolled down the greeting card aisle at the grocery store, looking for an appropriately remorseful message. But there was just no way Hallmark could help her adequately express the sentiments, I’m sorry I sued your son. I’m sorry for any insomnia my parents might’ve induced by demanding “justice” from the “crime” of an unassuming kiss. I’m sorry jail time was threatened. I hate that your equity in this house was jeopardized. I’m sorry I wasn’t more convincing, defending him, and that my stepfather remembered the Christmas Eve he spent here and saw dollar signs, recalling your plush white carpet, your baby grand piano, the stainless steel appliances in your kitchen, and your imported leather upholstery. I’m sorry if, afterward, you ever resented your son. I’m sorry I thought I could love him.
Her finger trembled as she rang their bell. A melodic trill echoed through the corridor. She tried to listen for footsteps approaching the door, but all she heard was the heavy brass of a wind chime clanging somewhere behind the house.
Pulling out her Blackberry, she decided she’d only wait two full minutes before heading back to her car. It’d been foolish to come unannounced. Here she was, on his parents’ doorstep when she wasn’t entirely sure he was staying with them while he was in town. Did Gideon even know that she knew where he lived? Would it look like she’d hunted his address down or hired a P.I. to find it, rather than just remembering it from back in the day?
She turned to leave, but then she heard the bolt turn. When she pivoted back, he was there, peering through a sliver of space at the open door.
“Are you serious?” he said.
It was difficult to read his face. His raised eyebrow could’ve meant annoyance as easily as it could’ve meant intrigue.
In the absence of anything clever to say, she tried, “Can you come out?”
He sighed. “Look, I don’t know how good an idea that would be.”
“Right. Neither do I. But I think it makes more sense to be direct with the elephant than to ignore it.”
He opened the door a bit wider and she saw that he was wearing baggy grey sweatpants and a National Civil Rights Museum shirt commemorating the 1968 Memphis Sanitation Strike. It read, “I Am a Man.” One of the dingy white socks on his feet had a hole in the toe. Aside from ten pounds and a smattering of grey in his hair, he seemed almost the same. She looked a little closer. His eyes were wearier.
“Come in. If we’re going out, I’ll need to change. You can wait in the kitchen if you want.”
She was desperately tempted to ask if anyone else was home, but she was scared to find out. He led her to the kitchen where black barstools surrounded a marble-top island, and waited while she settled herself on the stool cushion. “Can I get you something to drink?”
She shook her head. Something about the cold stillness of the house unsettled her. It was as though the family had just moved in and hadn’t had a chance to make things homey. They had to have lived here for about fifteen years.
“Give me ten minutes, maybe less.”
Her mind raced while she listened to him, padding across the floor overhead. She could make out the rush of shower water and little else.
It was unclear to her why she’d come and that scared her because she was certain it would be among the first things he asked. Why are you here?
She hopped off the stool and tipped quietly out of the kitchen. The sunken family room was to her left and she headed down to check out the pictures on the mantel above the fireplace. Five frames were angled across it: Gideon’s senior portraits from high school and college; Bishop Agee’s ordination photo; a family portrait that seemed to have been taken recently, of Gideon’s parents and an older woman Maranatha assumed was his grandmother; and a faded black and white photograph of an infant swaddled in white.
“So the kitchen wasn’t exactly riveting?”
She jumped and turned to find him clothed and shoed.
“Let’s take off. I’ll drive.”
She followed him to a door that opened into a wide garage and waited while he walked to the passenger door and helped her into his car.
He didn’t ask why she came. He didn’t say anything at all. She was used to long silences and was never in a rush to disturb them, unless they followed rash and hurtful insults or awkward declarations. This silence was pleasant by comparison. She loved how he left it undisturbed by radio or CD, though music was scared on the backseats, crammed under the armrest, and jutting from the cupholders. She read the spines of the cases. Radiohead. Amel Larrieux. System of a Down.
Gideon was navigating a winding back road and Maranatha leaned her face against the cool cloth strap of her seatbelt. She stared at the curving pavement, a colt behind a low white fence, an isolated farm in the distance. The pressure of searching for something to say slowly seeped out of her.
This was the silence of familiars.
“Did you graduate there?” he said, looking into the rearview mirror.
The urgency in his voice startled her.
“No. I took the GED.” It was the weirdest sentence, somehow. She rarely said it. Gideon nodded, changing lanes.
“Do you drink?”
“Wine, mostly. Sometimes beer. I try to stay away from hard liquor. I’m an angry drunk.”
“Yeah. So am I. I only drink hard liquor.”
Maranatha thought of what it might be like to drink with him, when they got to wherever they were going. She assumed—quite rightly, it would turn out in ten minutes—they were heading to a restaurant. She had rules about drinking: mostly at home, alone, and only in public with people she deeply trusted.
In the dimly lit restaurant, across from each other at a corner booth, she decided to ask what she suspected. “Did you bring me here because you don’t want to be seen with me?”
“I like to think, at damn near forty, I don’t need to hide anymore.” He took a swig of the gin he’d ordered. “Then, I remember we aren’t the kind of people who get to outgrow hiding.” He looked up at her, as if making sure she understood.
“My mother still doesn’t know I drink,” Maranatha offered, shrugging. She’d ordered a shiraz.
“I wouldn’t have left with you, if my parents had been home.”
“I haven’t really prayed, like gotten down on my knees in earnest, since I was twenty-two years old.”
“But sometimes, I feel obligated to pretend that I do.”
“Right, like when people tell you their tragedies and you say, ‘You’re in my prayers.’”
“Yes! And then you’re racked with guilt because your prayers are practically fictional.”
“Like aside from a stray thought—a hasty, ‘Lord, please help them through,’ you don’t have prayers to keep them in.”
“And you think you’re a terrible person for leading them to believe that you do.”
“And if their tragedy takes a turn, you feel partially to blame.”
The server came up to take their orders and for a moment, they looked up at him, like they were trying to remember where they were. Gideon got a steak, medium-well and a potato without sour cream. Maranatha ordered a crab cake and a potato with extra butter.
As soon as the server walked off, Gideon asked her, “Do you ever dream about hell?” to which she answered, “Not as much as I dream about being left behind in the rapture.”
It was like this all night, the two of them echoing each other’s thoughts over entrees and cocktails, back in the car, where cool night air rushed into their open windows and fireflies levitated along the road.
Their conversational double-dutch didn’t stop in the Marriott lobby nor did it slow, hours later, as they curled under crisply starched linen and stared at each other by the pallor of the cell phones they used as nightlights.