Part 42: Florence
We almost fell through the doorway. If a woman hadn’t been standing there, we would have tripped over our feet and been sprawled on the foyer floor. As it was, we were embarrassed anyway. The woman smiled. She was about forty years old and was dressed in loose jeans and a dark blouse. Her autumn red hair was tied in a bun on the back of her head and she wore little makeup so one could see that she was aging normally and proud of it. “You folks can come in and get out of the rain if you want,” she said with a knowing smile. “I’m just finishing up some cleaning left over from the wedding.” She moved out of the doorway so we could step through.
“Thank you,” I said, not looking directly in her eyes. I think a part of me was a bit self-conscious of the flush that kissing Summer had brought to my cheeks.
Summer, a little flushed herself, smiled graciously at the woman and tried to explain what we were doing on the front porch. “We got caught out in the storm; we don’t mean to be a bother.”
“Oh, it’s no bother. I’ll be here about another hour, so that should give enough time for you to dry off.” She looked past us to the sky outside. “I don’t think it’s a storm though, just a little summer shower. We get them a lot around here. Come on, I’ll get you some towels and you can sit in the sanctuary while I finish up.”
She led us into the body of the church. We passed through a double doorway and into the sanctuary. This large room took up most of the building, dominated by rows upon rows of worn wooden pews, separated by a long aisle carpeted crimson red that led to an altar down front. On the altar was a large wooden podium in front of a choir loft that would seat about thirty. On the wall behind the loft were brass effigies of three crosses, the center one much larger than the others and lifted higher so as to draw attention to the words “He has risen” on its brass crossties.
“Please, sit where you like. I’ll be right back.”
We sat down on the end of the closest pew and watched her leave. Once gone, we turned to each other and smiled. I kissed her forehead, not sure if it would be appropriate to kiss her lips in the sanctity of a church. I could see us getting removed for such behavior in some churches and I wasn’t sure if it was a good idea to take the chance in this one.
“Well, I guess that puts a little damper on the street party,” Summer said.
“I don’t know. Maybe she’s right and the rain will pass in time.”
“You talking about the party tonight down by Orchard House?” the woman asked, returning with two towels and handing them to us. “They’ll have that thing come rain or shine. We prefer shine though.”
“You going?” I asked.
“Yeah, I better. My daughter’s boyfriend is in the band, but I still got to keep an eye on them. Kids will get frisky anywhere if you let ‘em.”
I felt like telling her not just kids, but thought I better keep my mouth shut. Instead, I dried my hair with the towel she had given me.
“I’m Florence, by the way,” the woman said.
Summer smiled at her. “I’m Summer.”
I looked up from under my towel. “Matthew.”
“I don’t recall seeing you around,“ the woman said. “You just move in or are you here for the Apple Festival?”
“Neither really,” I replied. “We are staying up at Orchard House. Just passing through.”
She smiled. “Well, you know you can’t just pass through. That’s not allowed. If you have been here longer than five days we consider you neighbors.”
“Well, it’s day five, so I guess we’re neighbors.”
The woman smiled again and this time it lit up her whole face. “Well howdy there, neighbors.” She shook both our hands as if she were the welcoming committee for the community. “You’ll find we’re friendly around here. If you’re from the city, we may have to hospitalize you from the shock.”
“Yes, it’s very nice here. We love it.”
“I’m from the city myself, married a good old boy who broke down out front of my mama’s. I didn’t know it then, but found out later he was the only boy for me, and right here is the home I was missing. Now you couldn’t drag me away from here with a hundred Chippendale’s dancers.”
We laughed at her comment. I could almost imagine her fighting off hordes of male dancers with her broom. She was right though; people around here were friendly. We hadn’t met a person here who was hard to take, with the possible exception of the river tubing guy. It didn’t take a degree in psychology to figure he was trying to put the make on my girl that day. My girl. A week ago it would have been hard to imagine referring to any woman like that again. But here I was already claiming Summer as my own after just a few days. I guess sometimes that’s all it takes. I wasn’t sure I believed in love at first sight, but I was pretty convinced in love at few days.
“Well, I’m going leave you two alone while I go finish up in the kitchen.” She started heading down the aisle towards the back wall where I noticed there was another door. She turned around to us and said with a wink, “Just keep in mind you’re in church now.”
We laughed, but for a moment I wondered if she had seen us out there in the road in the rain. Summer must have had the same thought because she gave me this slightly embarrassed look. The cleaning woman made her exit, and while Summer finished drying her hair I got up and took a look around. I meandered down the aisle towards the altar.
It was a beautiful country church. In every window there was a candle, though at the moment they were unlit. The pews had a small brass plate attached to their back, and as I leaned down to see why I discovered the names of people were etched into the brass, all marked with ‘in memory of’ or ‘dedicated to.’ Moving down the aisle, I faced the altar which held offering plates sitting on a runner the same color as the carpet. I turned away from the altar to face the open sanctuary. Summer was still seated at the back drying off, but I was staring at the empty aisle and thinking of another one just like this. On another Saturday afternoon not long ago, I had stood waiting at an altar for a woman who never showed. I had stood on a similar spot waiting in anticipation for when my bride would enter in and start her way down the aisle towards me and our life together. I remembered how the minutes had stretched out until the smile had slowly left my face, replaced by worry and an anxiousness that no one can know unless they had been in my shoes. That day the thought of seeing a happy blushing bride taking her steps towards me was replaced by a completely empty feeling, a black void of realizing you are not good enough, you are unloved, you are a failure.
Now standing in this church, I bowed my head and shut my eyes tight, wishing the tears not to come. Even though I had reconciled any left-over feelings I had for Ashley, and indeed had found a new happiness with Summer, there was still hurt and pain from what had happened that fateful day. There is no way it could not hurt. Something like that stays with you no matter how you pray for it to leave you alone.
“Orchard House & The Heart Of Everything” 2016 Paul D Aronson.