Our first night in Judith Gap, we learned to roller-skate.

The skates were not our own: heavy, knob-toed, stiff-heeled treasures discovered in the attic of Tim Gary’s home. He had gone to bed, but we were eager to extend the day. We cast off our habits and veils, and in our long underwear went to the basement. We envisioned speed and grace. We’d soar, we thought, across the carpet. We’d glide like swans in flight.

We took turns tying tight the laces. It was hard to lift one foot and then the other. There we were, graceless and inept. For stability we groped the walls; still we came down on our palms and knees. We bled through our thermals, but we kept on, and our feet made heat in the leather of the skates and our mouths went dry with effort. But we kept trying until we could make it from wall to wall. We learned to fall backwards. Our hands went wide and our eyes low, and we one by one learned to move with care. Each step deliberate. Slow, and attentive. That was the only way to move.

After, we iced our knees in the kitchen. We drank cold water and decided we would wait a while to skate again.

Here is something we have learned time and again: you do not have to devote yourself to what you thought you’d enjoy. You need not love everything. You can decide, whenever you like, that what you feel is no kind of love.

 

We had asked for a new parish, a new diocese; we were sent to Judith Gap. A freckle of a town in central Montana, split down the middle by I-191. Population: 146 before we moved there, an even 150 after we moved in. Land of low rents and a new wind farm: ninety towering turbines stuck in the ground on either side of the highway, gathering the gales. We were asked to help the Helena diocese convert a defunct rug store into a makeshift chapel.

Before we moved west, we watched videos of these turbines on the rectory’s pale, cubic computer. The windmills stood lean and spare, untethered telephone poles with spinning blades. If you focused on one blade, the operation appeared slower than if you considered them as a unit.

Three days and two nights we spent on a west-bound train, our legs kinked up in economy seats. Abbess Paracleta came for us from Helena in her flat-bed truck. She stood waiting on the platform, arms crossed like we should have been sorry, should have done something to prevent the train’s delay. She was tall and thick, with jowls and square shoulders. She wore the same black habit as we did, but hers was thick wool. Her face was powdered with a heavy hand, and her lips had all but disappeared.

We said hello. We thanked her for coming. We presented her a bag of buckeye nuts from Ohio.

‘What for,’ she said.

In the truck we were stiff and still. We did not speak. Abbess Paracleta rushed the engine and charged onto the thruway, soaring past slower vehicles. On the phone the week before, she had sounded excited about our arrival, but she now seemed stripped of enthusiasm, as if she had, upon seeing us in person, perceived and could never forgive our ineptitude.

We fled on to Judith Gap. Abbess Paracleta had described it, over the phone, as the sneeze between two mountain ranges. ‘There’ll be so much wind you’ll think the world would run out.’

We were to live with her brother, Tim Gary. ‘He needs the company,’ she had said. ‘And I need the peace of mind.’ We didn’t know what she meant but felt it was not our place to ask.

On the highway, Abbess Paracleta pulled her purse from the seatback. We watched as she knee-nudged the wheel and took from her bag what looked like a letter, which she set on her lap. From the envelope, she removed slices of pink ham.

As if she felt our gaze, she spoke. ‘Most meats will travel well,’ she said. ‘Slip cured meats in an envelope, toss it in your handbag, and you will find it later –’ here she tore a slice and stuffed one half, then the other, into her mouth ‘– when you’re crying in a phone booth, or you’re alone in the stairwell of a damp, dark parking garage.’ She swallowed, licked a thumb. ‘And you will rejoice.’

We had known our share of damp, dark places. Abbess Paracleta ate with one hand and steered with the other, and we counted the miles that passed. The land outside our window was the continuous kind of ground: sweeping sameness with no intervals, no way of marking difference.

 

 

Tim Gary had no mandible.

He told us about his jaw while we unpacked our trunks in the attic of his home, a little cottage he had built himself.

‘You’re probably wondering what happened to my jaw’ was how he started the story.

Abbess Paracleta stabbed a broom at the corners of the attic and coughed at the dust. Tim Gary had assembled four cots in a row. We pulled our flannel sheets over the frames, stuffed pillows into cases. Abbess Paracleta said, ‘The sisters are tired from their trip, Tim Gary. Maybe you save the story.’

But Tim Gary spoke without interruption. Without a jaw, his face dropped into neck just below the cheekbones, and when he spoke his words came out flat and toneless.

Last winter, he had a suffering section of jaw removed, then another, then another. Next year, if he could save the money, doctors would rebuild his jaw with a piece of bone from his lower leg.

He had known hurt. After the surgery, his lips were numb for months, and he subsisted on liquids. Green ice pops were better than orange; chicken broth was too salty and made him bloat. Without the bone, his tongue was unmoored. Now he was back to eating solid foods, but his meals had to be soft and easy. He brushed his teeth with a toothbrush made for a boy.

‘And now the cancer’s gone, but so’s my jaw bone’ was how he ended the story.

Tim Gary had found good work driving town kids to school in a broad yellow bus, parked outside his home. He had no cancer, and he had no jaw, but Tim Gary had his ways. And, he told us, he wouldn’t be changing them. Not for us, not for anyone. He woke early and liked a nap before afternoon pick-up. He drank fat Pepsi and canned beer. Used paper plates and plastic forks, because he had no interest in washing.

‘No interest in cleaning at all,’ Abbess Paracleta said, and dragged a finger across the window glass.

‘We keep a clean house,’ we said. ‘We’ll be tidy. We’re grateful, Tim Gary, that you’re taking us in.’

He nodded, but we saw that this was not the thanks he needed.

How exciting it was, we told him, that we had the chance to worship in Judith Gap. Would he help us with the chapel? We’d need an altar, a crucifix, a lectern.

He nodded again, satisfied this time. He wasn’t a Christian man, he said, but he worked with granite, he said. He installed countertops for anyone who’d let him. He pulled from his shirt pocket a business card and showed us a picture: a gleaming slab, crystalline and freckled with feldspar.

He also had, he said, half a nursing degree and an ex-wife in Bozeman.

Abbess Paracleta said, ‘Not sure either of those will be of much use.’

‘But a granite altar – that’ll be lovely,’ we said quickly, and we saw that it made Tim Gary glad.

 

 

For supper, Abbess Paracleta grilled pork chops and fried russet potatoes and served peaches in halves. Poured room-temp birch beer straight, no ice. On the table, the food steamed, and we salivated while we waited to pray.

For Tim Gary, Abbess Paracleta toasted bread and buttered it limp. She scrambled an egg and sliced a banana and stuck a straw in milk. He told her, before he tried his food, that what was in front of him was the best dinner he’d ever had.

And that’s when Tim Gary started to cry. Tiny, pained gasps. He palmed fast at his cheeks and eyes.

We said, ‘What is it, Tim Gary?’

He said, ‘Oh, I just feel very blessed, is all.’ He slipped a sliver of banana between his lips.

We held hands. Abbess Paracleta issued a prayer of gratitude, concluding with the words, ‘May God’s work be done here in Judith Gap.’

We denied ourselves no pleasures, refused no excess. We salted and ketchupped. We ate with our hands. Stuffed in more than could comfortably fit. When milk dribbled from Tim Gary’s mouth, Abbess Paracleta lifted a napkin to his chin.

We ate until there was nothing left to chew, and then we gathered the bones and peach pits and Tim Gary’s straw and walked them to the trash out back.

Outside, we stood for a moment to take in the yard. Tim Gary kept a low basketball hoop gone threadbare and a thick stiff garden hose. Beyond that, a half-acre of high grass left untended.

We saw possibility. We could string a clothesline from the hoop to the house and hang our wash. There was enough yard space to grow squash and leafy greens, and radishes would take just fine. And maybe, from the thick branch of the oak tree whose roots reached the house’s brick, we could hang a rope swing.

With joy, we squeezed each other’s hands.

Inside, Abbess Paracleta was sponging dishes, and we heard Tim Gary say, ‘Oh, but you never visit, and I’ve always wanted to show you the turbines.’ He looked at us. ‘And the sisters want to see them.’

That was not, in fact, what we wanted. We wanted hot tea and to sleep until morning. Wanted to lose our habits and pull on flannel pants. But we succumbed. We silenced our objections for this man who had taken us in.

 

 

Tim Gary fired up the school bus, and we claimed the wide rows in the back. The seats were cracked plastic, the backs studded with chewed gum.

Abbess Paracleta sat up front, behind Tim. When we got to gliding on the 191, she turned to us and called down, ‘You ever seen a turbine before?’

Only on a computer screen, we told her. We recalled the poise of the keeling blades.

Tim Gary drove through town with the unhurried calm of a confident man. Judith Gap was dark aside from the bright lights that made the gas station seem to hover above the earth. The bus made such noise as it went, and when Abbess Paracleta addressed us again, we didn’t hear her until she stood to scream, ‘Why’d. You leave. Ohio.’

We looked at each other and shrugged.

She goaded us. ‘Hypocrisy? Corruption?’

We hesitated. We shook our heads. We walked to the front of the bus and told her the truth: It was something Father Lucas said. We had heard him speaking with the deacon in the sacristy after mass. We listened as they discussed the reasons a woman might become a nun. And we heard Father Lucas say, ‘It’s not so hard, when you look at the sisters of this parish, to see how they’d have trouble getting themselves a husband.’ And we looked at this man and felt contempt.

We told Abbess Paracleta, ‘We felt such contempt, Abbess. And such hurt. And we knew we needed each other more than we needed to tolerate him.’

Abbess Paracleta was silent, but we could tell she understood. Maybe she already knew, like we did, that obedience and devotion need not involve submission.

 

 

Outside the bus, we stood, stunned.

The turbines surrounded us and went on for miles, but all we could see were their tiny red lights that blinked against the black night. Warning signs in excess. The lights flashed, steady and in synchrony, and we spun to see them, to confirm that yes, the turbines behind us blinked with the turbines before us. The red lights stretched forever, dim in the distance and severe near the road.

These were the same wheels we had seen turning proudly in daytime, but they struck us then as anxious. Afraid. As if these lights were insistent reminders that though we couldn’t see them, the turbines kept on with their work; while we weren’t watching, their blades turned with a constancy we could only imagine.

Tim Gary said, ‘Let’s go look up close.’

We followed him single file through damp grass. Abbess Paracleta stopped to look at something that clung to her shoe. We gathered around her and, when we peered close, shrieked to identify the wet limp body of a fallen bat.

Tim Gary said, ‘Poor guy. Some days, there’s hundreds of them.’ Up close, the turbines were fat as ships. The wind rushed at us, and we walked circles around the giant glinting tubes, stepping over puckered bodies of bats, knocking the metal to hear the hollow ring. The red lights flashed on and off and on again.

Tim Gary showed us the low staircase and the oval door the engineers used to enter the turbines for maintenance. He said, ‘I’ve been up there. They let me go up. On a clear day, I can count the cows on Bob Lee’s ranch.’

We asked him if there was anything to do about the bats. Maybe the turbines could be turned off at night, when bats were liable to go flying, we said.

He shook his head. ‘No. No, no. We need the nighttime wind. And besides,’ he said, ‘it’s my belief that the bats go looking for the blades.’

We did not disagree. We did not say that this seemed hyperbolic, that surely no bat sought that kind of violence.

Tim Gary said, ‘Some days, I don’t blame them. Some days, I want to make like a bat. Hit the ground and never get up.’

His sister did not comfort him. She stood close to the turbine in her heavy habit, put a hand to the metal. And she said, ‘Tim Gary, that is no way to talk.’

He looked at the ground and kicked a clod of dirt until it came apart.

She said, ‘You don’t go saying things like that. You can think them, but you do not say them aloud.’

Tim Gary shrugged and walked on. We sensed with discomfort the enormous unknowable realities between people who shared blood and a surname, but not their lives.

 

 

The ceiling lights in Tim Gary’s home were clouded with moths. We swatted at them, but they persisted.

‘Stay the night,’ Tim Gary said to his sister. He offered tea. He could put clean sheets on the sofa bed. She must be too tired to drive, he said.

But Abbess Paracleta shook her head. She had a long drive back to the convent in Helena; she needed to be back for the rosary at dawn. She would come visit soon, she said. She shook our hands, and then she took hold of Tim Gary and drew him to her close and, just as quickly, loosed her arms and was out the door. As she went, we watched her handbag swing.

 

 

 

We must have woken him up, because Tim Gary came down from his bed to see us icing our knees, the roller skates abandoned on the linoleum.

‘Hello,’ he said. ‘I see you found my sister’s skates.’

Embarrassed, we said, ‘Oh, yes. Just thought we’d try them. We’re sorry for waking you, Tim Gary.’

He shook his head. ‘I was awake. Came down for a glass of milk.’

In the kitchen, we told him to sit. We could pour him milk. We opened and closed the cupboard doors in search of a tall glass. His cupboards were filled with cans of Spam and beef stew, lidded with dust – foods from bygone days when he could chew with ease.

When the milk was poured, we turned to Tim Gary. Where did he keep his straws?

He had just the one straw, he said, the one he had at dinner, and he used it always. His sister had brought it from Helena after his jaw operation. A time, we could see, when her patience was broader and her love less finite. We walked out back to retrieve the straw from the trash can where we had tossed it. We were relieved to find it had been preserved, as if by miracle; it was neither flattened nor kinked. We rinsed it in hot water and slipped it into the thick white milk, and we watched Tim Gary drink it all in one go. His soft throat rippled as the milk disappeared.

We sat for some time without speaking, not because we had nothing to say but because we were overcome with the sense, immediate and powerful, that our work in Judith Gap would be more difficult than we had imagined.

How wonderful it would be, to wring ourselves of expectations, to suspend the need for visions and plans. We had come to Judith Gap intending to create a chapel, to foster a new community, to build for ourselves a new life.

We would stay six months. The people of Judith Gap had no interest in a place to pray, and we would learn to recognize when a chapel wasn’t wanted. But from Tim Gary, we would learn to be needed. We would learn not to tell a despairing man, as he cried and swayed atop a grain silo, that he wasn’t seeing things right. Because his loneliness was enough to rot a bag of sugar, and he needed to know his pain was not easily dismissed.

And then we learned the precise color of a man’s lips after he swallowed a half-gallon of antifreeze: not blue, but gray. Gray, like tile caulk. We learned it took an ambulance more than forty-five minutes to find its way to Judith Gap, and a body only half an hour to shut down. And after Tim Gary died, we would hear from Abbess Paracleta. She wrote to us from Missoula, where she had moved to live a cloistered life. She would not attend the funeral, but she was grateful for our work in Judith Gap. She had been praying for us, and wanted to know if we would please write back to tell her what the autopsy said – if it was the cancer, in the end.

When we left Judith Gap, we would look back on this first night: our tender, bleeding knees, and the keen hope that we might be able to reach someone.

Before you meet a man, you imagine he will have all the bones that you do, more or less. But there, across the table, was our charge, our jawless new friend. He sucked and sucked at his glass of milk, and never stopped to take a breath.

 

Image © J. Stephen Conn

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Explain Her to Me