The Ordination of Women
Pilgrim was perfect. Behind his metal-framed glasses he had blue lupine eyes that hardened at the center to a bead. My daughter Helen met him in Boston, where she listlessly attends college on the dregs of her father’s old money. When she came home in June she showed me a picture of the two of them together, and right away I encouraged her to invite him up to Maidenhead. Helen resisted—but resistance is good—when I mentioned it again, at breakfast. “Imagination isn’t everything,” I told her. “Why don’t you bring that Pilgrim Byrd home?” I must have been mooning over my own sexual history, by which I mean an era notable for a few distant events. At my stage of life, experience is like treasure saved up in the backs of drawers: suddenly you can’t wait to give it all away to somebody who might use it.
Helen sipped her coffee, which was all she’d take in the morning, and said, “Do I have to?”
Just a few years ago, Helen was a chubby child. Now she weighs about eighty-five and eats practically nothing but hard candy and white toast, though she still drinks. That’s bad, I know, drinking with no vitamins going in, although thirst is a kind of hunger, which gives me hope. I’d thought a lover might frankly say, “Helen darling, a little flesh is useful in bed.” This is hard to talk about. Helen used to come home from school and put away cheese sandwiches and Little Debs; I spoke up then.
We drove to the airport together. Helen asked if she could drive, and I said no, better not. The car’s practically new, a headstrong Peugeot with barely 7,000 miles, and I know its temper best.
I suggested that we go up early and stop for lunch at China Hill. “We could have a drink,” I offered, in case she thought I was trying to force-feed her.
We’d had lunch together there a few years ago, when Helen was fifteen, after a doctor from Boston called to confirm her appointment to get birth-control pills. That time, we drank a bottle of Blue Nun and ate sweet and sour chicken. I remember it as one of the highlights of our life—two hours of explicit mother-daughter talk. That is, I told Helen in detail about my two love affairs, and Helen told me about her boyfriends. (I’d told my stories to Helen before, of course, but a good story improves, up to a point, with age.) It turns out Helen lost her virginity at fourteen—I was shocked and impressed to hear it—with her thirty-two-year-old Math teacher in a trailer out back of the general store, influenced by beer, distorted by fantasy, a fake fur rug under her back, a mirror on the ceiling, the “older man” flattering and encouraging her. Helen has always been competitive and eager to shock, but that’s natural, we are so alike. I was glad she’d found a way to tell her story well.
Lunch was disappointing. I ordered a Manhattan and my favorite chicken dish with the green peppers and the maraschino cherries in it. Helen had a glass of beer. She wouldn’t eat anything, and worried that the sweet and sour was all sugar that might put me into a coma on top of the vermouth and rye. She was right, of course. I had to ask the waitress to box it all up. I asked Helen some question about Pilgrim Byrd—was he attentive, something like that—and she glared at me in such a way that my sweater—an old black cashmere I’ve always loved—suddenly sprouted legs that crawled over my skin. The sweater wasn’t flattering (my neck is ropes and toggles), and I had on a white dickey, which felt constricting. It was also too hot. (We’d left Maidenhead in a fog, which burned off as we drove.) Just as I felt the betrayal of my favorite clothes, two gray-haired women came by our table. One of them said, “Excuse me, but all through lunch we wondered—are you an Episcopal priest?”
This was around the time it was all in the news, the Episcopal church ordaining four women in our county. It amazed me, too—where had such women (pious, serious, perhaps sexually adventurous) come from? But Helen just laughed.
“No?” said the woman who’d spoken first. “My friend thought not. I thought maybe. You know, a woman in a dickey.”
“I am a French teacher at the high school,” I told them, noticing how the word “French” slightly brightened the leaden effect of the word “teacher.” I was used to that.
“No.” I was used to that, too.
“Well,” said the friend, “sorry to interrupt your lunch.”
“Not at all!” Helen said, glad.
I’d allowed too much time, and we were early to the airport. Helen drifted restlessly around the terminal in her awful acid green minidress, which exaggerated the boniness of her shoulders and knees. I sat in a molded chair with my bag in my lap and waited for an hour, hating myself for not having brought a book to read. A board above the ticket counter said the plane was scheduled to arrive at 3:02. (The arrogant precision of the airline industry is the reason I don’t fly.) Still, if all went well we might be home by four, not too early to get out the ice and the gin and the tonic water.
The plane touched down at three-fifteen. Somebody in an orange vest rolled a stair to the door, and I recognized Pilgrim from Helen’s photo, and her description: “He’s twenty-nine, he went to Yale.” I wondered what this boy wanted with my daughter. He was perfect, short and round and pink—but perfect for what? I enjoyed him immediately. He was badly dressed in old, expensive clothes; he clearly felt no responsibility to be attractive. We see this often around Cape Wilde—idle money wasted on the dowdy rich. Pilgrim looked down at the steps beneath him, completely unconscious of being met—of our eyes upon him. He looked forty, but it was a pose. I recognized him at once as the kind of man who marries at thirty to relieve sexual strain (but does not marry a girl like Helen), produces three children, loses his hair, never pauses. An empire builder. Already he was writing a book on desegregation in South Boston. I wondered what they talked about, my daughter and this Pilgrim.
The barrier between us was made of sawhorses and plastic tape. If Pilgrim had looked up, he would have seen that Helen’s face expressed a coolness that plainly told how little she cared for him. For some men, a woman’s esteem is not a factor. In any case, his eyes remained on the sharp decline of the stair.
He kissed her on the mouth, which she allowed, and when that was done, Helen wiped her lips and said, “Mum, this is Pilgrim. Pilgrim, this is my mother, Lily.”
“Pleased to meet you,” Pilgrim said, and held out his hand to be shaken.
“Enchantée,” I said. I took the hand to my lips—a joke—and kissed it.
Pilgrim carried his luggage, one leather bag perhaps a couple of generations old, to the car, and stowed it in back on the passenger side. Helen opened the other rear door; she would sit in back. But then Pilgrim began to climb in back, too—to sit beside Helen, as if I were a taxi! I thought it was a queer thing to do, worse than queer.
“Pilgrim, come sit shotgun with me,” I said. “We’ll give you the ride of your life.”
Pilgrim looked alarmed.
“Her new car,” Helen explained.
“Oh—fine,” he said.
I took charge, pointed out the beaver dams, the islands in the bay. “Smell the flats!” I told him as we crossed the bridge to town. I buzzed down all the windows and let in the phosphorescent odor of clams. Pilgrim was blind to the marvels of Cape Wilde—though he did seem drawn to Helen, turning halfway around in his seat several times to make sure she was there, reaching a hand around to paw at her.
Helen was so removed I thought at first she might be reading—we’d been together on a two-week Patricia Highsmith jag—long afternoons at the beach in our swimsuits taking turns with Ripley Underwater or Ripley Underground—passing a bottle of baby oil and iodine between us, occasionally reading some choice bit out loud.
“Are you reading something good, Kitten?” I called to the rear, but before she could answer Pilgrim said, “Nothing, actually, that I could recommend.”
At home, he made no polite remarks about my treasures—the French clock, the life-sized silver suit of armor I’d bought at an estate sale, wonderfully cheap. All of which I minded a little. He produced a bunch of spotty Dole bananas. “For the house,” he said grandly—and put them in my hands.
“You’ll have to bunk with Helen,” I told him. “There’s no spare room.”
“We’ll manage,” he said, and managed her down the hall. I heard beds being pushed together—those punishing twin beds with the ancient mattresses redolent of sour horsehair and Helen’s childhood emissions. I cracked ice into the bucket and watched through the back window as the starlings made their beeline into the birdhouse hole. I promised myself I wouldn’t drink too much, would work for an hour before bed. I’d been meaning all summer to prepare some new exercises in futur antérieur and plus-que-parfait. At a certain level my students feel a false sense of fluency. They live in the past and the present. It’s important—not too soon and not too late—to introduce a subtler sense of time—what might be or should be, what will have been, what’s over and done.
They came back for their cocktails holding hands. Helen still wore her funny green dress, and she made gin and tonics for everybody. Pilgrim drank two and gobbled cheese and crackers. Helen drank her gin quickly for a person who ate no lunch; she even scoffed up her lime.
Helen’s eating habits—if eating is still habitual for her—are a secret. I’m a lunch person; evenings with Helen we usually “transcend supper,” as Helen puts it, and make do with drinks, crackers and cheese. I’d meant to defrost a frozen lasagna in Pilgrim’s honor, but forgot. After an hour it was still a hopeless brick. Helen might have helped, suggested something—I can’t imagine what.
“I have a lovely lasagna,” I told them. “But it’s cold.”
Nevertheless, I drew Pilgrim out, over our drinks, about his views on busing. The Metco program, the new charter schools. He was, it turned out, all for it—justice and equality. “That’s because, of course, you went to private schools,” I ventured, and Pilgrim laughed. I’d asked Helen about it earlier, just to be sure: he’d gone to Loomis before Yale.
By seven-thirty Pilgrim had begun to suffer and starve. Crackers and cheese don’t begin to quell the appetites of men like that, I know. Helen’s father was that way—a three-course man, formerly athletic, disciplined about eating meals.
Pilgrim and Helen sat together on the cat-clawed, hair-covered love seat in the living room; Pilgrim’s khaki leg touched Helen’s naked one and his hand rode high above her knee. His eyes were hard to read through his muddy glasses, though they looked bold—challenging me. But to what?
“Look,” he said finally. “I’d like to take you both out for dinner.” Helen reeled back in horror at the mention of food.
“Why don’t you two go,” I said. “You could take him to the fish fry, Kitten.”
“Oh, Mother, for God’s sake,” Helen said. But I knew exactly what he wanted.
“You get good fish—from the ocean—here,” he said.
“That’s exactly right,” I told him.
Pilgrim grabbed Helen’s hand and said, “I am hungry, you know.”
I’d forgotten the claim a man’s needs have over a woman. I stood up and said, “I’m feeling peckish, too.”
Pilgrim was ready to go, but Helen wanted to change. She went off, then I heard her shouting down the hall, “I want to show you something, Mum!” and went to see. Helen came out of her closet with a pair of blue jeans and unfurled them over the bed. “What are these?” she said.
“Your blue jeans, darling,” I told her. “You wore them every day in high school.”
“I never wore these! These aren’t those,” she said.
“They do look big for you,” I said carefully.
“I guess!” Helen said. She poked at the legs. “These were never mine.”
“Darling, I think you should go look at yourself. I think you should step on the scale and weigh yourself,” I said.
“Look at myself!” Helen was beside herself. “I can’t talk to you like this,” she said. “How can I even be here like this?”
“You mean Pilgrim, darling?”
“I don’t want him here. There’s something wrong with him,” she said, her eyes wild.
“There is nothing wrong with him,” I said. “Now go find some clothes you don’t mind getting fishy, and wash your face. We will meet you outside.”
I walked out of the room, turned the corner and found Pilgrim lurking. “Helen’s just changing,” I told him. “Why don’t we wait outside on the porch?”
We waited and watched a bat circling the yard. “Do you have the time?” I asked him finally.
He showed me the platinum face of his watch.
“I can’t see anything that small,” I said.
“Seven thirty-eight,” said Pilgrim.
When Helen eventually did emerge—still wearing her terrible green dress—she looked better. She said we should go without her, she had a headache. Something defiant and frightening radiated around her, something shrill. Pilgrim had seen it before, I could tell.
“We could all just stay here,” I said. “I could fry you an egg, Pilgrim.”
“I don’t want an egg,” said Pilgrim. “I want real food.”
“Of course you do,” I told him.
Helen shrugged. “So you two go,” she said.
Suddenly, it all seemed reasonable, pleasant and civilized—without Helen—going out to the excellent and inexpensive fish fry, eating a good dinner together, feeding.
“Will you be our driver?” I asked him.
“Pilgrim doesn’t drive,” Helen said.
“I can drive,” Pilgrim said.
“Mum never lets anybody drive her precious car,” Helen said.
“That’s not true,” I said, and handed him the keys.
It was a Friday night. The fish fry was packed and steamy. We sat in a booth in back, across from each other on the red leatherette.
“We’ll drink wine?” Pilgrim asked.
“That would be fun,” I said.
He looked over the list—I’d never seen a wine list at the fish fry—and ordered a bottle of something. I heard some French and perked up: Pouilly Fuissé. Irma Pinkham brought the wine, and two wine glasses, which gleamed in the grease-glazed light.
I barely recognized Irma at first—she’d run to fat, too bad. Irma was a student of mine a few years ago, a classmate of Helen’s, though the girls avoided each other.
“Ça va bien, Irma, avec toi et tes enfants?” I asked her.
Irma blew out an embarrassed little laugh. “Oui?” she said, as if it were a question. She struggled with the cork for a minute, then poured out wine. Pilgrim touched my glass with his. “Chin-chin,” he said.
“Choo choo,” I said. The wine was very good, dry and almost puckery. It had an old world heaviness I liked. Pilgrim sniffed away at his glass.
“Lovely wine, Irma,” I said. “Un bon vin blanc.” It was a phrase we used in French classes to practice vowels. But Irma only looked uncomfortable, as if I were speaking in tongues. She smiled tightly and pocketed her corkscrew.
“I’ll be back,” she said.
“So you’re a French teacher,” Pilgrim said. “Done that long?”
“A thousand years,” I told him.
“Do you go to France and so on?”
“I’ve never been,” I said. “I don’t fly, see. Helen’s been.”
“Shouldn’t you go,” he said, “for your work?”
“I have no desire—no need,” I said. “There’s no professional pressure—and I don’t push myself too hard. You’d probably say this is a two-bit kind of town.”
“Why teach French if you don’t care about the culture, the people?”
“I don’t teach French because of the culture or the people,” I said. “Fifteen years ago the school needed someone and I came forward. I never pretended to be French. I do love the language—the grammar, the literature—and I like my job. I think travel is overrated. People are the same everywhere, don’t you think?” Discreetly I pressed two fingers to my heart to sop up a drizzle of moisture between my breasts.
Irma returned with her pad, and I ordered steamed clams to start, a salad to share, and two fish frys. Pilgrim tied a plastic bib around his neck. We talked of his research in Boston, which I think of as my city, since some of my life happened there.
Pilgrim made one generous remark. He said, “I think that to know a city you can’t just live there—you have to visit it.”
It was a beautiful thing to say. I thought of January, when I drove down in my old car, my beloved Escort, to visit Helen. The heater was broken and I had to wear two pair of long underwear and socks and keep a hot water bottle in my lap the whole way. I got a room—quite seedy, but cheap and in town, near the river. Every day I walked for miles. Helen had her classes and I barely missed her. It was more than enough just to know she was there. I came down with a cold, and walked around the city sneezing and feverish, into the old State House where the sacred cod still hangs on the wall; downtown I saw an old man plunge the blue numbers on his forearm into a barrel of brine and pull up an enormous, reeking pickle. I walked to the house on Revere Street where Helen was conceived—but it was gone. Revisiting the neighborhood, I felt like a stranger, an outsider, seeing the place in its strangeness, reliving moments that felt like nothing twenty years ago, when I’d thought there would be more.
I reached over the bread and the wine and plucked Pilgrim’s glasses from his nose. He seemed blind without them, but he didn’t try to stop me. I dipped the glasses in my tumbler of water and wiped them clean on a paper napkin. The frames were metal, unoriginal, mute on influences—Benjamin Franklin or John Lennon, hard to say. I slid the glasses back on Pilgrim’s nose. He looked as if clear vision changed his view. “Wow—Lily,” he said.
I thought of Helen, who would now be standing at the refrigerator, trolling for scraps of food, filling herself with remorse.
Irma Pinkham brought the clams, and two bowls of butter and broth. “I’ve never had these before,” Pilgrim said.
“Clams?” I said. “That’s extraordinary, as you’re from Connecticut.”
“Jewish mother,” he said.
“How did you come to be called Pilgrim then?”
“My father was an asshole.”
I detached the veil from the neck of one and dipped it into his butter. Then I lifted it to his mouth, and pushed my fingers through his lips and laid it on his tongue.
“Good?” I asked him. He gave me a long, assessing look, which I allowed. I’ve never minded being looked at.
“Very good,” he said.
I fed him another.
“Go on,” I said.
Pilgrim did one thing at a time. He removed the veils from one clam after another and laid them in the butter bowl. He popped the clams straight from the bowl into his mouth. Butter drizzled down his chin, his bib. When he finished his glasses were filthy again. He pushed them up on his nose. “Ah, the finger bowl!” he said, and plunged his hands in the broth.
Irma brought our fish frys—elegant haddocks. Under the breading the fish is always white and tender. You can eat all you want, but I limit myself to one piece, and one to take home for lunch. Helen and I used to go every Friday night back in the old days when Helen ate food. We never thought, then, of wine with dinner. The fish comes in a red plastic basket lined with waxed paper to hold the oil. They send out French fries too, but I taught Helen never to get involved with those.
Pilgrim was no product of mine, however: let him eat them. He ate quickly, with near total absorption, and spoke only to call to Irma for more haddock. The table filled with red plastic baskets and balled-up paper napkins. When Irma finally tore the green ticket off her pad, there wasn’t a free space on the table; I took it from her swollen-looking fingers. “Thank you, Irma. This is mine, Pilgrim. It’s delicious to have you with us.”
He nodded, seemed pleased with that.
We walked along the embankment, looking uphill at town, out across the harbor at the black humps of fir-covered islands in the bay. The evening was warm, and the street busy with people coming out of the restaurants dazed from their big dinners. I suggested that we stop and buy a bag of penny candy for Helen.
Lolly’s is the place. It’s been there since I was a little girl, when the individual candies really were a penny, and old Mrs. Lolly stood behind the glass cases, tall and extremely serious, and waited with her metal tongs while we chose. “One cigarette, one slice of coconut bacon, one chocolate soldier, two lemon slices—no, one lemon slice and one orange slice…” Helen and I used to walk over after the fish fry, and split a bag. Lolly’s had new candies now, raspberries and blackberries, and tiny, perfect bananas and peas.
“I’d rather buy her ice cream,” he said.
This was ridiculous. “Don’t you know her at all?” I asked him.
He put his hands in his pockets and went sullen. The pleats in the front of his khaki slacks cradled his little tummy.
“You’re just wrong about the ice cream,” I said. “Helen never eats it.”
“She eats ice cream with me,” he said. “I feed it to her on a spoon. In bed.”
My ears rang a bit. “Why are you telling me this?” I asked him.
“Did I go too far? I thought you two discussed all your exploits together,” he said.
“As a matter of fact, no—not all.”
I left him there, walked a block up to Lolly’s, pushed the door open and went in. The bell jangled in the door.
I spent four-fifty on penny candy—a medium-sized bag. The candies are in big, self-service bins, now, with plastic scoops. We are a nation of gluttons. Even penny candy isn’t sold by the piece anymore—it’s sold by the pound.
When I came out Pilgrim was standing on the sidewalk, holding a freezer bag from the fancy, summer-only grocery; I’ve never even stepped in there. He said, “I’m sorry. I shouldn’t drink.”
“It’s perfectly all right,” I said.
We walked to the car without speaking. Pilgrim pulled the keys out of his pocket and opened the passenger door for me. But once he got behind the wheel he was lost.
“You want to take a right here,” I told him. He drove up Eden Street, past the big old houses there—most of them undermaintained, rotten really, unoccupied even in this high season—but noticed nothing. He drove badly, not, I thought, from the wine. He had no natural grace. He held the wheel too tightly, breathed through his mouth. I felt, sitting in the unfamiliar passenger seat of my new car, high and nervous. Pilgrim was too brittle, his glasses too greasy; he could crash.
I put a hand on his leg, squeezed.
He drove off to the side of the road, away from the streetlights, down into a grassy ditch under a maple tree, and stopped the car. He unfastened his seat belt, then mine, and leaned over and kissed me on the mouth. There was nothing exploratory or sensory about the kiss. It was all transmission, no reception—he might have been having a convulsion on my face. He unbuttoned the front of my blouse, or tried to, until I helped him. I thought of beautiful French words—rébarbatif for repellent, an old word for confusion—brouillamini. I sprang the little hook in front of my bra and a childish noise sprang out of him—a whine of frustration or anguish—some pain, though not really serious. I stroked his head, his thinning baby hair. His hands moved awkwardly to the fly of his pants, which he worked to unbutton.
This was all over very quickly; almost before I understood how minor was my role. He mopped his groin with a tremendous wad of tissues he extracted from the box I keep between the seats, then crushed the tissues into a ball. He flailed against the window for a minute, then struggled with the ignition. The Peugeot roared to life and he buzzed down the window and tossed the ball—it looked exactly like a snowball—across the street onto the lawn of the Historical Society. It lay there like some unseasonal marvel, glowing on the grass.
Helen hadn’t bothered to switch on the porch light. The chime on the door pinged anxiously when I opened it. The house was dark, though a small light shone from the kitchen. “We’re home, darling!” I called.
Helen wandered down the hall toward us. She’d put on her old robe—a thin flowered rayon rag. “You both reek of wine and fried things,” she said.
“Pilgrim found French wine at the fish fry. Can you picture it?”
“I brought us some ice cream,” Pilgrim said, squeezing Helen’s arm.
“And I brought penny candy. Those little berries you like!” I rattled the paper bag in front of her face.
Helen, reaching for the bag, looked like a child again, small and greedy and expectant—though in reality, she was only small. I wondered whether I had ever been a good mother to her, and how, under different circumstances, I might have been a better one.