Just because a priest offered her a brownie and asked her to, Jenny knew she didn’t have to drive 240 miles to the ragtag middle of Missouri. She didn’t have to do it even though Bob Cassidy was the nice priest from the Catholic church in Wolf Pass, Illinois, who’d buried her husband Reecie. The brownies he brought were yummy, too, Bob promised, double chocolate and caramel made by Adela, the Honduran refugee staying in the rectory because the parish had sponsored her family, but Jenny didn’t want a brownie. She wanted to say no to this silly trip Bob called a mission of mercy, because hardly anyone ever said no to a priest, and she knew they counted on that, expected yeses all the time. But when Reecie’s two-day dead body had been bent and stuffed into the seat of Matt Biedermann’s super modified race car, and Matt, squeezed into the same seat, drove him around a few last times, Bob had been a good sport about it all, and against diocesan directives had blessed the car, the corpse, and even the track itself. Jenny thought of that and said yes. Jenny thought of that and said yes.
So two days later, she headed south on route 100, white limestone bluffs on one side, and on the other, the wide Mississippi with its tributaries, the Illinois and the Missouri rivers. As she drove, she watched a pod of American White Pelicans turn so they glowed silver against the blue sky. A pod was a good enough term, but cloud would be better. She’d said as much to Reecie nearly every time they watched the pelicans. She hoped the pod migrating in January wasn’t a bad sign, what with March and September being their best months. Maybe they didn’t know why they traveled now, much like her. She was going to Pittsburg, Missouri, with little idea of what she was meant to say once she found Bob’s crazy mother, Polly. “Stop being in love with death, Polly,” she could say, for that was what Bob feared. Polly’d been sending texts: Death is the antithesis of suffering and My goal is to die. She sent them when she knew Bob was busy saying mass, and then turned her phone off so he couldn’t call. Bob’s baby brother, Ignatius, said Polly was being Polly so no need to worry, but Bob did, and Jenny wondered about a grown-up man in his forties referring to his own sibling as “baby brother.”
She pointed the heating vents directly at her face to thaw her nose and made her eyes water and her thick white-blond hair (Moonlight Wheat number 2) swirl about her left ear. By the time she saw the cable-stayed bridge over the Mississippi at Alton shining against the sky, she was warm enough to turn the blower down. Like most residents of the northern hemisphere, she hated January.
“Join the living,” Bob had said. “Re-join the living.” She’d thought it pompous and wrong when he’d sat in her living room two nights earlier eating from the pan of brownies. She may have been dormant for a while, but she remained part of the living. She knew the difference. Reecie’d died. She’d watched the light, the life force, what Bob would call the soul, leave his body. One nanosecond alive, the next dead. That was six months ago. She was left behind on the side of the living. Bob clearly had ideas of what grief should be, how long it should take, though he said the opposite, gave the standard bit of wisdom: we all grieve in different ways. He shook the pan of brownies out toward her, half of them gone by the time he made his request. He was short and round, his face glowing with perspiration, his breath labored, the waist band of his black slacks hidden by his black shirted stomach no doubt stretched nearly to tearing.
“You said she was over forty when she had you,” Jenny said. “I mean, she’s 80 something now. Not too unusual to be thinking of death.”
“Well, I could die tonight,” Bob said. “None of us knows our time. But I don’t send ominous texts about it. I fear she’s depressed.” The crumbs he brushed from his chest and stomach blended into her chocolate-colored carpet. “God wants us to have fun.” He stood to go, and Jenny held the pan of brownies for him as he struggled into his parka. “Do both of you good, this trip, this mission of mercy.” He’d walked the two blocks to her place, walked with the pan of brownies next to his chest, shielded from the freezing drizzle by his parka. As he maneuvered the pan chose to his chest for the walk home, he continued. “Don’t let her off the hook. Make her listen to you.” He chuckled. “Her head’s harder than algebra.”
It was not easy to come after a saint. Maybe another saint could do it, but Jenny wasn’t that. She was the second wife, eighteen years younger than her husband and not from Wolf Pass. She talked to herself about that as she left Illinois and entered Missouri, cleared St. Louis, and hit interstate 44, jammed with trucks. She chose to follow a Walmart truck that seemed to be well driven, set the front assist so her Honda would brake when the truck did and let the miles pass with little effort. She was the stepmother of three boys, the oldest sixteen, only four years her junior when she moved in, and the youngest fourteen. It could’ve been a disaster, but Reecie and Emily had raised them to be polite. Jenny had done her part, too, making their favorite foods, sitting through recitals and sporting events and parents’ weekends, her life with Reecie anchored by graduation parties, award banquets, birthday parties, wedding and baby showers that led to more birthdays and recitals. Oh, and the races. She and the boys had gone to most of Reecie’s races, had cheered like it mattered and choked on dust. No bonds were formed, though, not with the boys or their families and children. Though she and Reecie had managed the local Auto Zone together, upon Reecie’s death, his sons canceled the Auto Zone contract. She couldn’t recall the sons checking with her, but they said they had, even offered to help her find other work. Then the sons and their wives and children went to Hawai’i for the first Christmas without Reecie. They said they were sorry to leave her alone, and hoped she understood.
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