More than once Berna decided to leave her husband Zechariah and run away with her lover Rae—but Berna was the pastor’s wife, and it was different back then.
She and Rae had established a strong emotional connection—had fallen in love—over the course of a few years. Then one Monday—this was back in the mid-seventies—when the boys were still too young for school, after her daughter Miriam got on the bus, Berna walked them across the church parking lot for Edna Taylor to babysit. She could smell the greasy food from Edna Taylor’s house before she got to the sloping porch. She pushed the boys through the front door as Edna called out hello from the kitchen where she was frying scrapple and eggs.
Berna drove down the river to Rae’s. She sat on the couch in Rae’s living room, and said, “I’ve made up my mind. I’m going away from here. By myself.”
Rae’s house was a two-bedroom place in Clendenin, across the old bridge with the iron grate deck that you could see through down to the brown river, past the Ben Franklin ten-cent store, and the other stores, and left at the end of the street. The house was up a steep driveway that crossed the train tracks and was washed out along one side farther up, so that Berna was afraid to drive up it. She parked the Datsun down by the street and lumbered up the drive, across the tracks. Rae’s front porch was streaked gray and black with train soot. It was clear no one ever sat in the porch swing—it was as black with soot as the rest of the porch.
The back yard was small and fenced in, and the woods went up the hillside. Mangy old locust trees leaned out over the fence. She and Rae sometimes sat together in a freestanding hammock that took up Rae’s entire back porch. Rae called it the Argo because it was big as a boat, and it literally was big as a rowboat. They would rock in it with their bodies cradled together, and talk and watch the boys play in Rae’s yard. Rae had gone and bought a bunch of yard-sale toys: a metal fire truck, and a whole bag of matchbox cars, and some yard darts; Star Wars action figures, which the boys weren’t familiar with, Hollywood movies being one of the things they didn’t do in general, and Star Wars, according to Zechariah, teaching an eastern dualistic model of the universe and not a biblical Christ-centered—Christocentric he called it from the pulpit—model. Rae kept the toys in a wooden box back there, like a grandparent, for them when they came.
Rae had her own lawn mower, and clippers, and a chain saw she could start up with one or two strong pulls right out in front of her, not holding it on the ground or even against her leg; she cut down trees along her fence, buzzed back overhanging limbs, like bushwhacking, beating back the wilderness, till her yard was a shady little sanctuary. Hidden behind the house there, behind her fence and her chainsaw, Berna felt happy and safe with Rae there in that yard. She often wished they could just stay there, and it be like that.
That day, after telling Rae how the boys had almost accidentally killed the new puppy, Berna unloaded, told Rae everything she’d kept secret from Zechariah about her life—the abuse, the sex; Zechariah had thought she was a virgin when they married—and how she just couldn’t be the preacher’s wife anymore, she told Rae she was leaving.
Rae sat beside her and listened. Then she said to Berna, “You have to stay. You can’t leave.” She said, “It’s your God-given duty to raise those kids, and you’re doing better than you think you are.”
Berna shook her head. “They’ll be better off without me in the long run. He’ll find somebody.”
Rae’s eyes got teary and she said, “Plus.” She shook her head and waited a few long seconds. She took a deep breath and said, “I don’t know what I would do without you here.” She said, “You’re the best friend I’ve ever had,” she said. “I can’t stand the thought of losing you.”
Rae had her cowboy boots off, and her white tube socks were dingy, plain dirty at the toes. She pushed her sock feet over next to Berna’s bare feet, and then slid her behind close to Berna, and they embraced—really embraced—for the first time.
With that, Rae talked her out of leaving her family; she stayed in Clay County. Rae gave her the strength to stay. Knowing she could run if she wanted, that it was a real option, made staying more bearable. She started going out to Rae’s on her own when she could, which was hard because Edna Taylor wanted cash for watching the boys, and she was a little crazy—one morning she taught them all how to flip open and light a cigarette lighter with just one hand—so that dropping them with her wasn’t much better than leaving them on their own.
Then one day Berna and Rae were on the couch hugging and talking like they did, and just like that, Rae leaned out and kissed her. She was surprised, but she kissed back. They kissed each other’s open mouth for a long time, softly and tenderly. Rae gently took Berna’s bottom lip in her teeth and pulled at it. She said, “I want to eat you up.”
They laughed about that and kissed some more.
Eventually Berna pulled back and said, “What are we doing? What is this?”
Rae leaned up and said into her mouth, “It is what it is. Don’t think so much about it.”
They started kissing again.
Having broken through the kissing barrier, not many days later, they started petting one another’s body. Rae cupped Berna’s breasts in her hands and kissed her way down to where her buttons were, and Berna stopped her, pulled her head back up. Clothing was still a barrier Berna would not cross.
They stopped kissing and talked. Berna said, “What will ever come of this?”
“Lunch,” Rae said. She went into the kitchen and started making eggs. Berna sat on the couch and watched through the doorway. Rae had on a loose flannel shirt and no bra. Her dungarees were tight on her muscular legs.
Berna could not divorce her husband, and she could not give Rae up, she was too deep to get free. She fought fleeting dreams of Zechariah’s death freeing her to be with Rae—she didn’t want him to die, not really, and she knew that desiring her freedom over his life had to be a worse sin than simply divorcing him; in God’s eyes, it had to be worse.
“What will be, will be,” Rae said. She held the pan out and tossed the eggs up. Berna saw the flash of white and yellow as the eggs did a slow flip in the air. Rae caught them perfectly in the pan and set it back on the burner.
Berna knew that it had to go one way or the other. She had to let this move forward or she had to stop it. Why did everything have to be so hard for her? She said, “Everything you do you’re good at.” She said, “Everything comes easy for you.”
“You think?” Rae turned off the burner, got two plates from the cabinet above the sink. She disappeared from sight as she carried the plates and the pan to her kitchen table. From behind the wall she said, “Chow’s on. You want a piece of toast?”
Two days later, Berna woke up beside Zechariah and decided it was the day. Zechariah had a quick glass of Tang and took some coffee off to the church. After Miriam and Andrew got on the bus, Berna dropped the other two at Edna Taylor’s and drove to Rae’s. Rae had to work at noon so they only had a couple of hours. They started kissing on the couch like usual, and then Berna stood up and pulled Rae’s hand.
Rae knew what it meant.
They held hands to Rae’s bedroom and, without saying anything at all, got on the bed and kissed and undressed and touched each other’s body. Then Rae slid down and used her mouth on Berna like she’d been doing it all her life, though she told Berna after that it was her first time too. It was the first time in Berna’s life that somebody else had given her an orgasm. She writhed when it started because it startled her. Rae grabbed her hips and held her so she couldn’t squirm away and kept going harder and faster.
Didn’t she trust Rae? She did, with everything. She relaxed into the bed, turned her head and gave herself up to it.
Afterward, Rae rested her cheek, wet with Berna’s juice and cold, on the inside of Berna’s thigh and Berna’s other bare leg was hooked over Rae’s shoulder, her heel resting on Rae’s back. Berna stroked Rae’s hair and stared at the blue wall, where there were four nail holes that would make a square if they were connected, and around the outside of them was a dirty oval, the shape of whatever had been screwed to the wall there. Next to it was Rae’s guitar, which she’d gotten for Christmas one year but never played. The top was covered with dust. On the other side of the nail holes was an old wooden icebox that Rae’s dad Colley had refinished and Rae kept her winter clothes in. It had brush strokes where he’d swiped on fake wood grain; the swipes were splotched at the bottom, like maybe he’d gotten in a hurry and slopped it a little bit. Beside that were two cardboard boxes. The one on top had written in magic marker, Xmas1973, and had a white label with the address all scribbled out.
This was a home. Berna especially loved that bedroom. It smelled like Rae. Everything felt natural and right. Berna wasn’t afraid. She rolled over and slid down, and used her mouth on Rae, did it just as Rae had done to her. It was not disgusting, as she thought it might be. It was beautiful, giving and getting pleasure. It was right.
From that day they were lovers. When they were together, Berna felt good and right, at home in her skin, like she could not remember ever feeling in her life. When they weren’t together she felt horrible guilt. She wanted to please the Lord, she really did, and she wanted to be a godly wife and mother. As natural and beautiful as it felt, she knew it was the worst kind of perversion. She repented and prayed and made promises to God, if only he would free her of this wickedness. But she couldn’t stay away from Rae. She cursed Gerald, her perverted step-dad, blamed him for warping her this way.
Rae said to her, “Okay, well, then what’s my problem?”
Berna didn’t know. Rae had always been masculine. Her dad, big deacon though he was, didn’t seem to discourage it either. He took her hunting and fishing. Colley didn’t have a boy, only Rae. He doted over her still, came and worked on her car, helped her replace her gutters. In some ways, he’d raised her to be a boy; he’d pampered her in many ways too though. She was his girl. Berna wondered where she’d have been if she’d had a good man like that in her life when she was a girl.
She and Rae weren’t discrete. Looking back years later, Berna was amazed it took as long as it did for Zechariah to find out. People weren’t as cued into things like that back then, at least not out in Clay County.
# # #
In 1983, Berna’s boy James sneaked a raft out on the Elk River after a rainstorm and drowned. They called off church altogether on the Sunday after they found the raft and not James. Church members, some at the church and some in various houses, held round-the clock prayer vigils, taking one-hour shifts right through the night so there was never a second of the search without prayers being lifted to the Lord.
Colley and Glenwood Jarvis and Jim Miller, and others of the men from the church—and four volunteer firemen not from the church—went to work down at the river. Officer Humphrey was down there too. For four endless days Berna and Miriam and Andrew and Ricky waited around the house. She kept thinking hour after hour that James was just going to come in the back door like usual, maybe be muddy, hungry, and this warped reality would smooth into normalcy, and everyone would relax, but hour after hour James didn’t come in the back door, and as the time passed, the strange waking dream began to settle into a crushing certainty that no one person would say out loud: James was dead.
The men tried to drag the river as best they could from the banks and up on the bridge at first; they had to wait four days to get out on boats because the water was too rough, and it rained steady for two days, which made it all the worse. Then they spanned the river with ropes tied to trees on either side and used them to pull their boats back and forth. Zechariah took his waders down, but nobody needed them and they lay unused on the bank beside the other gear. The men were concentrating on the bend, and the beaver nests at the bridge, the two places things always got hung up. Zechariah came back and told her all this. She did not go to the river. She did not leave the house. They were looking for a dead body. For the waterlogged body of her son. Her James.
Two more days she and the kids waited. Zechariah tried to stay there, but paced like he would come out of his skin. Eventually he put on his coat and left; he stayed down at the river with the men, though they wouldn’t let him on a boat. He helped where he could, got coffee, ran down to Clendenin for bags of Tastee Freeze burgers. The men ate standing up, staring at the current.
People brought food to the house. Rae brought her apples and the cloying cinnamon smell made Berna want to vomit. Rae sat at the kitchen table drinking coffee, not saying anything at all, except to settle the kids or get them fed or off to bed. Berna still kept waiting for James to come in the door. He was going to come in the door, and this was all going to be something they talked about years later, maybe even laughed about. James, her special boy. Her baby boy. He wasn’t coming in the door. He was gone.
The way she and Rae didn’t talk about it made it clear that they both knew the reality of the situation. Kids died in that river almost every year, usually in summer; it wasn’t a surprising thing at all, not even really news if it wasn’t your child did the drowning.
On Friday, the eighteenth one of the firemen found him. He was jammed in the beaver nest just like they’d thought all along. Even though she knew, it was like a horse kicked her in her chest. She tumbled from the bright tension of waiting into black grief and guilt. She went to bed.
Rae had called in her personal days at Kroger and stayed the whole week. When they found James, she called in and took another week off. She took care of the kids while Berna was in her bed. She drove them around in her Jeep with the top off and the heater on. She took them to Tastee Freeze twice and then all the way down to the Dairy Queen in Big Chimney.
While Rae was out there with the kids—Berna could hear her strange deep-voiced talking to them and their high responses, just the voices mostly, not usually words—Berna was in her bedroom confessing her sin and getting right with God. The room filled with the smell of Berna’s unwashed body and the full laundry hamper. Zechariah crawled in bed with her at night and held her, then crawled back out in the morning. Berna stayed there.
Here’s what Berna knew, knew it beyond the shadow of a doubt: she was not saved, the Lord had never truly gotten hold of her heart; she had not repented and truly been forgiven that day all those years ago in church.
The Lord had taken her James because of her sin with Rae. This is what He’d had to use to get her attention. Her boy was dead because of her sin. She knew in her heart of hearts it was true.
Rae opened the bedroom door and came in. The smell of burnt toast and grape jelly came in with her. She quietly emptied the dirty clothes from the hamper into a laundry basket. Berna shifted to get a look at her and she stopped.
“Hey, pretty lady,” Rae whispered.
Berna rolled over, didn’t say anything. At that moment, she did not love Rae anymore. She hated her, loathed her presence in the house. She had ended it already, and Rae just didn’t know it.
Rae sat on the bed and started rubbing Berna’s back. Berna tensed up. Rae gently rubbed and scratched for a long time. Berna waited. Then the bed rose as she lifted herself from it. Her knee popped when she squatted and picked up the laundry. She pulled the door closed and Berna was again alone in the dark, smelly room.
In the middle of that night, Berna woke up and prayed: Dear Father God, I repent of my sin and I ask you in Jesus name to save me. Lord come into my heart, change my heart, give me a new heart and pure desires. Make me a godly wife and mother. I am so sorry, she said repeatedly, I am so sorry, I am so sorry, as if being sorry enough would bring him back. You took my James, she said. I’m sorry. Couldn’t you have done it some other way? Why, God, why my baby? I’m sorry.
She realized she was sobbing when Zechariah rolled over and wrapped her up in a deep-pressure hug that was a little painful because he slid his arm under her ribs. She had just gotten saved, surrendered her all for the first time, prayed and received Christ as her personal Lord and savior. Zechariah’s breath smelled of the lasagna someone had brought. He wept too, the first time she’d known him to cry, even when his dad had died with the heart attack, and he’d even preached the service. He wasn’t preaching this one. His assistant Jeff was—she had a severe dislike for Jeff, but didn’t have the energy to request someone else.
She turned to him and wrapped him in a deep hug of her own, something she’d never done. She resolved then and there to turn her back on Rae and their sinful relationship, to devote the rest of her life to her God, her husband, her family. She had a lot to pay for. Then, almost audibly, she heard the Spirit’s urging, the still small voice in her head saying, it starts here, in this bed, with your husband, your covenant partner.
She started kissing Zechariah’s mouth, passionately kissing him, which is something else she’d never done. He responded immediately, before he’d even stopped crying, kissing her back and pulling up her nightgown. She shut her mind down and threw herself into it, and they fucked. They fucked hard and it didn’t take long for Zechariah to have a desperate, gasping orgasm. Then they lay beside one another and said nothing at all as they drifted back off to sleep.
The funeral was a hazy dream, though the day was crisp and cold and bright, and when it was over she only had a couple clear memories. One was of her husband holding tight to her shoulder, and her children, her holding on to her children the way he was holding on to her, being strong for them, bracing them. The other memory was of Rae. Rae was there, and she came through and gave them all hugs, and was at the graveside service on the hillside graveyard overlooking Route 119 and the river where James had died. The sun flashed up off the water down there between the bare winter trees. Rae kept looking at Berna, trying to get her attention, make eye contact. Berna did not let it happen. She was strong in her resolve; she had died to the flesh.
On her way to the car after the graveside service, she noticed something about Rae, something that made her realize Rae was maybe not doing as alright as she seemed, not as strong as she’d seemed when she was working around the parsonage. Rae had on her dark taupe gabardine pantsuit that she wore on such occasions, the one with the shoulders squared off by pads and the lapel that started on her right breastbone and crossed over her front to button at her left hip. That wasn’t out of the ordinary.
The problem was her shoes. Rae had put on one black and one brown shoe. They weren’t even the same style. There she stood in her mismatched shoes. It was such a pathetic sight that Berna started crying again. She did not however make any gesture toward Rae. She stayed strong in the Lord. She got in the back of the funeral home car with the children, and Zechariah got in front.
The children sat staring ahead. They were in shock of course; they were all in shock. Little Ricky grinned at her when they made eye contact. What did he understand? What would he remember?
Zechariah said from the front seat, “Jeff’s sermon was good, I thought.”
Zechariah had been overly gentle and affectionate with her since the other night. She knew he sensed that something had changed between them for the better and he was glad of it. She could tell he knew it was because of what happened to James because he was tentative about it, wanting to be romantic with her, but not wanting to be unseemly about it. How was it someone could grieve the loss of a child and at the same time take real pleasure in what had come about as a result of it?
The man from Belcher & Stallard agreed with Zechariah about Jeff’s having done a good job. He was a little man, had a big mustache, looked like he colored it black, and he was bald all the way to the base of his skull bone in back, had this little strip of hair that could have been another mustache on back, except it had gray and brown mixed in with the black hairs. Over the past three days she had seen him pop a cinnamon Certs into his mouth from a red roll in his blazer pocket five different times. He did have a nice smell about him though.
Nodding profusely, he said of Jeff, “I don’t have to tell you children are the hardest ones to do.” Then he seemed to remember that he was with the family of the deceased, not just talking shop with a preacher in his car. He quickly added, “It’s good that you all have so many people who love you for support. A lot of support. That sure is a blessing to have.”
In the church basement, the all-purpose room, the ladies had set out on the long tables what looked like more food than the whole church could have eaten in a week. Berna heard the funeral director telling Zechariah that he knew it would be hard, but he had to get all James’s stuff out of the bedroom he’d shared with the other boys. “Bed and all,” he said. “For those two boys’ sake.” He nodded toward Ricky and Andrew, who were at the table helping themselves to more than their share of deviled eggs, and of course no one was stopping them this time. The man said, “Helps them move on faster, trust me.”
All the core families were there, the deacons and trusties and their families, and many others too. Many people Berna only recognized as having been around, but didn’t know at all. It was so crowded she got dizzy and had to sit for most of the time.
Zechariah took a church in Institute after that and they moved from up the river. Berna did not see Rae again for almost thirty years, and even then only by happenstance in the McDonald’s out on Corridor G. Of course, by then they were both old. Their story had been told, was coming to its conclusion.
They had both known it was over at James’s funeral. That’s why Berna wasn’t surprised at not seeing Rae in the all-purpose room afterward. Berna, the pastor’s wife, was surrounded by comforters.
Rae was not there. She was off alone somewhere, grieving.