It was a shame about the weather. If not for the continuously pounding sleet, today would have been perfect for Celia Warthen's wedding.
Mother Grey had buried a number of people since she became the vicar of St. Bede's, and baptized two, but this was her first wedding. She was all keyed up and ready for the experience. Perhaps it was this and not the sound of ice on the rectory windows that had given her such a restless night, nightmares about cats, wakefulness in the small hours. She peered through her bedroom window and saw that a glassy coating covered the whole town of Fishersville, the bushes and trees, the electric wires, her Chevy Nova, everything, to a depth of half an inch. This would be a problem for the wedding guests. She fed Towser and took him out for his walk; the two of them went almost a block and then by mutual consent turned around and came home again.
While Mother Grey's oatmeal was cooking the phone rang. It was Ellen Warthen, calling to reassure her about daughter Celia's wedding. In spite of the severity of the weather, she said, they were going ahead as planned, one o'clock at St. Bede's.
"Most of the out-of-town guests are here already," Mrs. Warthen said. "Fortunately." No sooner had Mother Grey hung up the phone than the florist and her assistant appeared at the rectory door, wanting the key to the church.
Soon there would be rich people traipsing up and down the church steps, some of them North Jersey lawyers. When Mother Grey had finished her breakfast she took her trusty coal shovel and bucket of salt and went out to inspect the walkways for ice. This liability patrol was becoming a routine with her. St. Bede's at this point in its life could ill afford to be sued. The parish had come a long way in the three years since Mother Grey first came here to be vicar, but for all that she had accomplished in growth of the parish and service to the surrounding community, the church was still broke. Furthermore Mother Grey had a powerful enemy serving in the Diocesan Department of Missions, namely Father Rupert Bingley. She could just hear him: "A lawsuit, Mother Grey? This won't do at all. You'll have to close St. Bede's now."
So far this winter, no one had fallen down on church property, though people were dropping like flies all over town. Everyone agreed it was one of the worst winters in Fishersville history. Not only did it storm two and three times a week, so that schools all over New Jersey had to be closed and travel became all but impossible, but there was also the thing with the cats.
No one knew what happened to them. Some said they wandered off and froze to death in the storms, but their dead bodies were never seen. Mother Grey herself had no cats. She had Towser, the peebie-jeevie who had come into her life two years before in a wounded condition and made himself her dog. Having no cats, she felt sympathy when the lost cat handbills began appearing, some with photos, others in childish scrawls, on phone poles all over Fishersville, but she did not feel menaced. Still, she couldn't help wondering what was behind it.
It was strange. Cat owners began to keep their animals indoors. The police did nothing, because they could think of nothing to do, and because like everyone else in Fishersville, they were too busy trying to survive the winter to worry about cats.
When Mother Grey appeared at the church with her salt and her shovel, movers were unloading a rented harpsichord. She got busy chipping and salting. As she finished clearing the bottom step, the florist came out the front door, followed by her assistant, and gave her back the key.
She went inside to take a look. They had bedecked the inside of the old stone church with more white flowers than Mother Grey could ever remember having seen in one place. For a moment the storm clouds parted and let the sunlight through the stained-glass windows, and the beautiful saints and angels seemed to smile on the oaken pews with their flowers and ribbons. St. Bede's had never looked lovelier. Mine, said a small voice in Mother Grey's head.
Hers by the grace of God and the skin of her teeth. Since her arrival here as vicar, the congregation at St. Bede's had perhaps quadrupled (not difficult; she started with five people). The diocesan assessment had been paid every year, although Mother Grey had had to forgo ten thousand dollars in back pay to do it. Slow improvements had been made to the dilapidated church, mostly things that Mother Grey and her parishioners were able to do with their own hands--the painting of the porches and window frames, the refinishing of the pews. Her parishioners were few but wonderful people. The Warthens had money, the Wellworths had intelligence and charm, Delight van Buskirk had, at age ninety-four, venerability, and Saraleigh and Ralph--well, they were poor, stupid, charmless and young, but they had loyal hearts and willing hands.
Mother Grey still remembered with shame and rage the day when Father Rupert Bingley had presented his bald, fat self at her door and proposed to merge St. Bede's with his own prosperous parish, ten minutes by car from Fishersville, and carry her entire congregation away in a minibus to attend St. Dinarius. If she prayed about it enough she might someday be able to forgive him.
Forgiving him would be easier if he stopped pressing his offensive proposal. Now that Bingley was in the Diocesan Department of Missions, under canon law he had power over St. Bede's as a mission church. When he came to the parish on business, she often caught him gazing on St. Bede's stained glass windows with a covetous eye.
It was touch and go with Bingley. Everything that happened at St. Bede's became an occasion for him to come around and try to close the church. Right after Christmas, St. Bede's furnace gave up the ghost. Throughout the month of January, she burned incense every Sunday because the smell of something burning seemed to give the worshipers the illusion that they were warm. Sometimes Ralph Voercker, her corpulent thirty-two-year-old acolyte, tried to do fancy things with it like swinging it around in a circle by the chain, but he lacked the necessary coordination. At other times he would surreptitiously warm his hands on it until she feared that he would set the flowing white sleeves of his cotta on fire.
Fortunately Major and Mrs. Warthen gave Mother Grey the money for a new furnace just before Bingley's last visit, so that she was able to wave the check at him when he complained that you couldn't run a church without heat. Lucky for St. Bede's that Major and Mrs. Warthen had money.
But enough of brooding over the outrages of Bingley. It was time to see about the vestments. Edward Warthen was to serve as an acolyte at his sister's wedding, and Mother Grey needed to be sure his cassock and cotta were pressed. She went to the sacristy and checked out all the necessary vestments, her own as well, shaking and brushing them, running over the cotta with a warm iron, being careful not to scorch it. These things would not fit him next year. At thirteen, Edward was undoubtedly on the brink of a growth spurt. Soon he would be taller than Mother Grey herself.
Three years at St. Bede's, and this was her first wedding. Next week, another wedding; Ralph and Saraleigh. High time for those two. Ralph would have been working in the mail room of the paper-bag factory for six months, eligible at last for health benefits for himself and his dependents, if any. This meant that Saraleigh could afford to get off welfare, drop the Medicaid coverage for her three children, and marry him at last. With luck some of these flowers would still be blooming at their wedding.
Everything was in readiness. A shame about the weather. But then, life in Fishersville was such that a thing like a natural disaster (for that was what they were now beginning to call the snow) only enhanced its charms. Mother Grey stood on the porch of St. Bede's and beamed with pleasure on the neighbors digging each other's cars out, on the yuppies cross-country skiing, on the city officials who turned out to supervise or even personally engage in snow removal. She fell into a meditation on the order and beauty of life in Fishersville, little knowing the extent of the disorder underneath, little guessing how it was about to erupt.
"When can I get a bus to Fishersville?"
The boy behind the lunch counter looked up at Rex Perskie and took his time answering. Perskie was not happy to be in Trenton. The minute he got off the bus from Jacksonville, Florida, and stepped into the Trenton winter, Perskie realized he had forgotten how unpleasant New Jersey could be in February. Maybe he should have stayed in Florida after he got out.
There was so little demand for buses from Trenton to Fishersville that the boy had to look at a schedule folded up beside the cash register. "Five o'clock," he said finally.
"What? Lemme see that thing." Perskie snatched it from his hand.
"Keep it," said the kid. "They're free."
Five o'clock? Spend a whole afternoon in Trenton? The kid must have read it wrong. Perskie could walk to Fishersville and be there before three--hell, he could run it. Couldn't be more than twenty miles. He had grown very fit in prison, put on thirty pounds of muscle. He imagined himself jogging up the river, taking the canal path maybe. The wet gravel crunching under his feet. Roll in about supper time, sneak into the old place, give Saraleigh a thrill. His woman. Family life. This time he would straighten her out a little better than last time.
If the old place was still there. He sort of remembered it being on fire when he left.
Trenton to Fishersville. Here it was. Five o'clock was when the next bus came, the only bus. He could find a bar, kill three or four hours in Trenton, or he could walk. Or try to hitch a ride. As if anyone would pick him up, with his prison haircut and his ex-con shirt and pants.
"Do you know if there's a clothing store around here somewhere?" he said to the kid.
"Sporting goods store about four blocks up State Street," the kid said. "They might have a hat and a warm jacket. You from Florida?"
"I'm from Fishersville," said Perskie. "And now I'm going back there."