Her Own Kind of Cloister
In the empty twilight of an overcast Monday afternoon, Elizabeth took the Lord’s name in vain. Loudly. Aggressively. The whole sanctuary reverberated with her “God fucking damn it!” It bounced off every pane of stained glass, every sacred icon, every wood-carved cross. It seeped into the vestments of the altar. It greased the candles.
A goose-egg pushed up under the skin where she had cracked her forehead on the pew while polishing the linoleum beneath. She saw stars, which, until that moment, she’d thought only happened in cartoons. Her breath caught in her chest; she felt dizzy. She clutched her dust rag in one hand and the broom handle in the other as she eased onto the seat behind her. Good God she needed a drink. She hadn’t thought she would so soon. Not here. The dispatcher at the cleaning service where she worked had put Elizabeth on the church circuit permanently. Quiet, reliable, respectful, responsible. Trusted not to nick valuables from the vestry. All reasons why she sat there now, with a splitting headache, blaspheming and craving alcohol.
At first, she had thought she might like the new assignment. The noble reverence of tidying-up the house of God. Or rather, as it turned out, seven houses of God. Scheduled by management for 31 hours per week to avoid having to pay her benefits, she’d have to bust her ass to get them all in appropriate condition by Sunday morning. Every week. She hadn’t thought it’d be bad. She wasn’t afraid of hard work. In fact, hard work in a solitary, spiritual environment seemed like just the kind of thing she needed to get her life back on track. Her own kind of cloister.
But she hadn’t really known what she was getting into. The buildings were old. Dust settled on every surface at a pace that matched the silent snowfall outside. Candlewax drips pocked the burgundy carpets. Smears of peanut butter tainted 80% of the surfaces in the nursery. At least one Styrofoam cup, half filled with pungent coffee and ringed in old lady lipstick, lay tipped over in every. Single. Trash can. And the stench in the bathrooms curdled the air to the point she could not even imagine how God fearing people could make such a stink.
When she’d spoken to her sponsor about how the position was not at all like she thought it would be, he reframed the situation for her and gave her a different perspective: She had steady work. Work that was safe, fairly paid, and respectable. She had the health and well-being to complete the tasks asked of her. She was quite far ahead of so many that he sponsored. She just needed to get used to this new life. This better life.
The stars faded, dawn breaking. Elizabeth fingered the new topography of her scalp and took a deep breath. She stood and found her balance steady. Padding noiselessly down the carpeted aisle, she made her way toward the back stairs that connected the altar to the kitchen below. Maybe she could find an ice pack in the freezer to take the swelling down. But she didn’t make it to the steps. The unassuming closet tucked in a tiny room just off the pulpit distracted her. She could feel the pull of the elements through the knotty pine door. The ungreased hinges and hitch in the latch announced her trespass.
She wasn’t much for theology. She didn’t know if Christ was really here; if it was somehow really blood in that clear glass vessel. If it was, it could just as easily be her own. Poured out and sitting, locked away, on a dusty shelf. Waiting to be consumed. Warm and sweet, the wine slid down her throat. As she finished the bottle, the ache in her head migrated to some chamber deep down inside that she could never quite tidy up.
Marsha Timblin received and MFA from Chatham University and her work has appeared in The Occulum, Cold Creek Review and Boston Accent Lit. She writes fiction from her home near Pittsburgh, PA, where she lives with her husband, son and Shiba inu puppy. Follow her on Twitter @MarshaLena.