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.