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Maureen Anne Sherbondy

Maureen Anne Sherbondy

Maureen A. Sherbondy is a poet and fiction writer from Raleigh, North Carolina. Her short story collection is The Slow Vanishing. Her forthcoming poetry collection is The Art of Departure. She teaches English at Alamance Community College in Graham, North Carolina.


No one understands Heloise, not her accountant husband, Stanley, who comes home with eraser remnants on his khakis, and printer ink smeared on his fingers. He plops down, his bottom heavier on the cushion with each growing year, then he grunts hello and nods as Heloise sets his casserole or his fried chicken on the TV tray in front of him so he can zone out in front of Jeopardy. No one understands Heloise, certainly not her son William, who returns from his classes at the local automotive school, shuts his door, and disappears in front of his computer screen, playing videos, or texting his friends until midnight. No one understands Heloise, certainly not the aging fat cat, Claudette, who claws at dangling upholstery fabric, or sleeps in the light of the back sliding glass door.

Only the Reverend James Goodworth, her steady Sunday morning companion of two years, understands her. He looks back at her from the small guestroom television screen on Sunday mornings from nine until ten. Today, like every Sunday, his angelic words and kind face reach in and touch her very soul, even though he is three thousand miles away from her corporal body.

Two years before, when Heloise felt especially lost, after the drawn-out death of her dear 71-year-old mother, Maggie, she found the Reverend when she was absentmindedly flicking through channels. Even the Home & Garden Network could not brighten her spirits during that dark July. She let the channel stop when that deep, yet gentle voice spoke out, "Let yourself grieve. Grieve for the flowers shriveled in the yard, grieve for your youth lost to time, and grieve for friends who no longer call or visit."

Watching him now, her heart once again speeds up with each spoken word in his baritone voice. She sets her hand over her chest, and lowers herself onto the bed. The Reverend has light blue eyes and dark hair that is graying near the ears in that distinguished man sort of way. He seems trustworthy and kind. It is as if he is speaking just to Heloise. He is talking once again about loss and death.

"And when we bury our parents, know that we loved and were loved. That our own children will bury us, too. But we will one day join with all of the losses, the friends, the relatives. So when you wake each morning, the sun reaching out to you, be joyous, be grateful, be giving and kind to those around you. Embrace both the living and the dead."

He goes on for thirty more minutes, but Heloise loses focus on the rest of the sermon. She sits in a trance, as her husband sleeps in, and her son cuts the dry grass. Every Sunday when she watches the Reverend, her heart speeds up and her palms grow sweaty, just like they had when she'd first been dating her husband and he had kissed her and done other things. Sure, once every few months, when tax season is over, or on an anniversary, or a birthday, Stanley raises one eyebrow, rubs her neck, pats her dark wavy hair, and then her heart and her arms open. But the very sound of the Reverend's deep, but gentle voice sends jolts through her entire body, leaving Heloise nearly gasping for air. She cannot get enough of his sermon, his voice, his presence. The Reverend James Goodworth has awakened her very heart - this heart that has been dormant for years.

Heloise is not a particularly religious woman, but had attended St. Mary's Catholic Church as a child. Stanley does not believe in those guilt-ridden fear of God teachings, he'd once said. His true religion is, "A place for everything, and everything in its place." Still, they attend an Episcopalian church on Christmas Eve and on Easter.

Heloise wanders out to the kitchen when the loud lawnmower rumblings go silent. She unloads the dishwasher of last night's dinner plates, glasses, and pans, then she gently cradles an egg from the refrigerator.

"Mom, this came in yesterday's mail," her son's voice startles Heloise from her thoughts, and he tosses two envelopes on the pine table. He grabs a water bottle from the counter, gulps down half the contents, as sweat drips on the kitchen floor.

"Thanks, Sweetie. Can I make you an egg?"

"No, heading out to Brett's. Going fishing all day, Big Bear Lake." He picks up an apple from the ceramic bowl on the table, takes a few bites, then leaves the room, ducking his head to avoid hitting the doorframe. That boy never seemed to stop growing. At 6'5" he is four inches taller than her husband, and a foot taller than Heloise. He has her light blue eyes, and her full lips, but, unfortunately, Stanley's sharp nose. When he finishes school in six months, he'll get a job and move out on his own. He already no longer needs her. She puts the egg back in the refrigerator.

Heloise grabs the letters and wanders again to the bedroom. When she looks back at the TV, Heloise is disappointed to see that another Sunday morning show has started, one lead by a husband and wife team that seem very phony, too sweet with nothing interesting to say. She turns off the power and reads the two envelopes. One is from the power company; she sets it in the bill file labeled 'P' in the kitchen. The other envelope brings a smile to her face when she recognizes the black and blue church and cross insignia letterhead. Heloise rubs her index finger along the raised blue letters Goodworth Church of the Holy Spirit.

She peeks in on Stanley; he is still in his boxer shorts (his large and hairy belly protruding), but is now up and reading about tax changes and the economy. Their last conversation had been two mornings ago; the subject: the alphabetical order of his morning cereal. Perhaps as an act of defiance, she had moved the 'C' Cheerios to the box spot in the pantry after the 'R' Rice Crispies. Maybe she did it to annoy him, or maybe to just engage him in conversation. She sometimes goes days without a complete sentence from her husband.

"How do you expect me to find anything in this house? Why on earth did you move Cheerios to the R-Z area? Honestly, Heloise, are you trying to make me late for work?" He shook his head, grabbed his keys, and left in a huff. She watched out the bay window as the desert sand flew up when he accelerated the Jeep into the distance.

After he left, she moved the "Sugar Smacks" to the A-D section. Then she'd thought better of it, and had moved them back.

Had she ever loved him? She'd married Stanley because her first love had dumped her for the military, left and never come back. No other boy had asked her to marry and she was 25. He had a good job and treated her well, but she'd never been passionate about him. They hardly spoke; he hardly spoke. God knows she tried to get him to engage with her. He refused to take walks after sunset, or to go to the theatre, or to attend lectures at the local community college. No, he seemed to just want alone time, time without Heloise. Maybe he was secretly in love with the Jeopardy host, she giggled. He wasn't a bad man, just not the right man for her. She was so damn lonely, she sometimes would just cry on shirts while ironing, or leave tears on the cutting board while cooking, or cry in her lap while driving her car on the 15 Freeway.

The letter calls out to her again. She had received correspondences from the Church before, ever since beginning her monthly 20-dollar donation two years earlier. But recently she'd cashed out a 5,000-dollar CD from her mother's estate and sent the proceeds to the Church. The other thank you for your donation notes had been short and impersonal, with a printed signature stamp. But this letter is an entire page long, and signed in blue ink by the Reverend himself! She lifts the thick butter-colored stationery to her nose as if to smell the Reverend. It smells like pine and citrus. The return address reads Raleigh, and she wonders if all of Raleigh smells like pine trees. She'd always lived in Southern California. Though the mountains are pretty and the high desert sunsets make her smile in the evenings, it is so hot and barren here. She'd never been to the South. She walks into her son's room and stares at the map tacked up on the blue wall. Her eyes travel left to right and she touches the spot on the map where she imagines Raleigh to be.

Inside the envelope, she also finds a brochure. She sits down on her son's unmade and lumpy bed and reads the entire letter. She, Heloise Blandon, is invited to attend a special retreat. As a member of the Closer to God Circle she and fifty other generous contributors are invited to a three-day retreat in October where they would meet one-on-one with the Reverend himself! Heloise's hands tremble so much that she drops the glossy brochure. When she picks it up, she sees pine trees and a hill and cabins and a giant cross atop a smaller church somewhere in the Carolina mountains. This is indeed a place, she thinks, where she could get closer to God.

She walks onto the porch and lowers her body down into her mom's creaky rocking chair. Outside the air is dry and hot. By noon it will be 105-degrees. Her thick hair is frizzing and poofing with each increase in degree. Her neighbors' yards are filled with rocks and sand; grass does not grow well in the desert, and with the water restrictions, Stanley says it is better to just give in to the desert and invest in rock landscaping. But she insisted on grass in their yard, because Heloise is starving for green. But staring at the freshly cut lawn now, she notices the lawn is turning brown.

She pictures an entire neighborhood of lush green grass and pine trees. She imagines the Reverend's handsome face and kind eyes. She hears his voice calling her, "Heloise, Heloise. Join us at the retreat."

She imagines meeting with him one-on-one. Her heart opens and sings. The desert is not her home, it never has been. The South is calling her. It is time to go. The ten other certificates of deposit dance in front of her eyes, as well as the safe deposit box at Mojave Savings containing stocks, bonds, and her mother's jewelry. Though her mother Maggie had never been in the habit of cursing, she had once said to Heloise, "You need to have fuck-you money. A girl's got to have it to truly be able to pursue her happiness."

The last week her mother was coherent, she'd whispered to her daughter, "You've never been happy with that husband of yours. Find your happiness, child." She'd handed her a key to the safe deposit box.

Heloise touches her gold chain. Two items dangle in the light - a gold cross and that little key. She isn't going to wait until the retreat. She is suddenly in a rush to begin her life right this very second. She wipes the sweat from her head, curses the heat, then grabs her purse and leaves the porch, the house, the desert and this life.


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