Carolyn Cleveland lay back in her car seat and exhaled a great sigh. “I am dying for a good, hot bath” she said to Tyler, her husband, as he climbed into the driver’s seat, buckled in and turned the engine on.
“That makes two of us” Tyler said. “I was ready for this to be over three days ago. I have got to speak with the deacon board about putting a little more energy into the search for a youth pastor.”
“Why should they hurry up with that?” Carolyn asked. “They’re getting all the work of two done for the price of one. Three, if you count the associate pastor that they can’t find either. My Friend Rosa told me that they have a saying in Mexico: Why buy the cow when you’re getting the milk for free?”
Tyler turned quickly and looked at his wife. Carolyn felt his gaze, but looked out the passenger door window at the trees which lined the road. The sun shone through the mostly bare branches and she could clearly see the lake where they had been leading a youth retreat for the last week. It was early April but already warmer than would usually be expected. Leaves were beginning to appear but not nearly enough to block the view.
“That’s a little cynical” Tyler said. Carolyn seemed to press herself more deeply into the seat, and turned her head a fraction more towards the window. “Not that I don’t think that myself, from time to time.” He added.
Carolyn did not respond, and Tyler drove on in his own thoughts. At length he spoke, if only to break the awkward silence.
“I really do thank you for the work that you put in on this retreat. I don’t think – no, I know – that I couldn’t have done this without you.”
Carolyn continued to sit in silence.
“Yeah, I’ll talk to Larry on the deacon board. I have got to get some help so that you don’t have to do so much.”
Carolyn thought for a few minutes more and then turned her head so that she could look directly at her husband. Tyler was thirty seven years old, handsome and very athletic. Some of the women at church complimented her on catching such a ‘hunk’, and part of her enjoyed that recognition. His work, however, had absorbed him, and that hunk tended to come home late, stay up working on a sermon, or be off somewhere counseling some member of the congregation, and only rarely home and fully paying attention to her. Tyler’s remoteness to her had caused her to retaliate with remoteness of her own, and the part of her that loved and desired her husband wrestled with the part that was growing sick of it all.
“I don’t mind helping” Carolyn began. “I just don’t like seeing you taken advantage of, and when you’re time is spent trying to do the impossible, then I’m being taken advantage of too. If you’re not willing to be more careful with your time, I wish that you would be more careful with mine, is all. I think we should get to be ‘WE’ a lot more. Frankly, I’m getting jealous of the church. I thought that I was your wife. Now I’m not sure.”
Tyler didn’t respond immediately. He knew that she was right, and he had struggled to balance his roles of pastor and husband. It was at last crystal clear that he had not done an adequate job of that.
“I hear what you are saying” he said at last. “It’s true. I’ve been burning the candle at both ends, and I haven’t been able to decide which flame to put out. I’m really sorry about how that’s played out in our marriage.” Tyler sighed again, and it was now his turn to look out the window.
Carolyn saw that Tyler was truly upset by how the last six months without a youth pastor, or associate pastor for that matter. It had put a terrible strain on their marriage, and even caused him to question his position of pastor. She reached out her mildly sunburned left arm and put a hand on Tyler’s shoulder.
“I know how much the ministry means to you, Hon. I really do. I feel a responsibility to help you too. And I will help you. I just wish that there was more room for us to be a couple. Well, really, I just want for there to be more room in your life for me.”
“I know. I know. It’s just that, well, no. I don’t mean that. It’s just —-I mean. I really love you and I love the ministry, or —- well, loved the ministry. Aw, shit! I’m just screwing this up!”
Tyler saw a turnout just ahead and pulled off of the road when he got there. The car rolled to a halt. Tyler set the handbrake and turned to face his wife, who caught him completely by surprise when she planted a big kiss right on his confused lips as he did so.
“Why Tyler Cleveland, I do not believe that I have ever heard you swear!” she said, laughing at the confusion and delight that she read on his face. “Maybe that’s part of what I’m trying to say. Could I have a little more ‘Aw shit’ and just a little less ‘Pastor Cleveland?’”
Tyler knew that his eyes were reddening but he regained his composure. He leaned forward, over the console that separated the front seats of their car, put a hand on the pink flesh of Carolyn’s thigh just below the hem of her safari shorts, and muttered “Damned bucket seats,” as he kissed his wife, slowly this time.
“Careful, Romeo. That’s some sensitive skin down there.” Carolyn was laughing, joyful at this first romantic move toward her for quite a while that didn’t have the look of a marital obligation about it.
“Oh, pardon me” Tyler responded, and then began to pat the slightly sunburned thigh carefully, brushing it lightly with his fingertips. Ideas flitted through Carolyn’s head.
“We’ve got a long way to go” she whispered with a low, husky voice. “I’m looking forward to getting home.”
“Yes Ma’am” Tyler replied. He released the brake and returned to the two lane forest road. Tyler let his hand rest just above Carolyn’s knee and drove in what seemed to be perfect happiness.
In fact, it was not what it seemed. A little further down the road Tyler began speaking again about the deacon board.
“Actually, Babe, there’s something that I want to ask you about. I’m going to explain some hard things to the deacon board next week, but I’m a little concerned about one of the members. Greg. Greg Newman. I don’t know what it is, exactly, but something’s just not right about him. Or maybe I’m just making stuff up.”
Tyler stared straight ahead, but his grip on the steering wheel with his left hand, and the fingers of his right hand that had ceased caressing her knee gave away his unease.
“He and Elaine haven’t said or done anything really wrong; I mean, they’re always together at church and at other functions just like they’re ‘supposed’ to be’” At this point Tyler raised his hand from Carolyn’s knee and used his first two fingers to make a quote sign regarding his word ‘supposed’. He put his hand down, and it landed this time in the sensitive, sunburned area higher up on the leg and the stress he continued to feel was again communicated through his fingertips.
“But it all looks plastic; like, it’s all show. And he seems to flirt with Pamela, our secretary. I’m pretty sure that nothing’s going on between them because Pam’s told me that she is aware of it and feels uncomfortable around him. I’m going to crack on the board a little to get me some help,” and at this point he turned to Carolyn “or I’ll resign my position,” and then he continued “but I can’t tackle that if a bigger problem exists with the board itself. You and Elaine are friends, and I wouldn’t expect you to breach a trust, but I have to ask. Have you noticed anything that could steer me one way or the other?”
Carolyn said “No”, and leaned back in her seat. She closed her eyes and began to recall a conversation that she had with Elaine two months ago over coffee in her kitchen.
“Greg is going to the Bunny Ranch.” Elaine blurted out that morning when Carolyn noticed that she looked like she had been crying. “He drives over the state line into Nevada and goes to that whorehouse. He finally admitted it”
“My Lord, Elaine. That’s awful!” Carolyn was shocked and saddened by what she had just heard, and was also speechless . Elaine continued.
“He said that I wasn’t bad; just not ‘exciting’ enough for him. ‘You’ve gained too much weight’ he said. ‘You’ve let yourself go to seed.’ Well, I have put on a few pounds since having Ben and Jillian but I didn’t think that it was all that bad.”
Carolyn found her voice at last. “That’s just crap Elaine. You aren’t overweight at all. You are a very attractive woman and he’s just, well, he’s just, oh my Lord in heaven. He’s just full of shit. He’s just making excuses to you to cover up his awful behavior. But are you sure that he’s telling the truth?”
“Why would he lie about something so horrible? No, I believe it all. He has nothing to do with me anymore,and even if he tried, how would I know that he wasn’t just coming back from that place. How would I know that he hadn’t just – hadn’t just- Oh, Carolyn, what should I do? I hate divorce. I know how hard it would be on the kids. And I know that what he is doing would have to come out in a contested divorce, which is what it would be with him. I don’t – I just don’t -“
At this point Elaine dropped her cup of tea and began to sob with her face buried in her hands. Her shuddering shoulders stooped forward as if they were carrying an immense weight. Carolyn and no words for her friend, and therefore simply sat beside her and wrapped her in her arms, silently communicating her support. Finally, Elaine looked up with red, swollen eyes and a trail of snot running across one cheek.
“Promise me you won’t say a word to anyone. On, please. Promise me.”
“I promise” Carolyn said. “Not a word to nobody.”
“Oh, thank you. Thank you” Elaine said, and after composing herself arose to return home to her nightmare.
Carolyn then opened her eyes and looked at her husband. She thought about the pain the Elaine was enduring, and the all but inevitable disaster that loomed directly in her friend’s path. She then thought of the overworked, distracted, tired but faithful husband sitting next to her. With tears now in her own eyes Carolyn leaned over the console, placed a hand on Tyler’s denim-covered leg and kissed him gently on the neck.
“Damned bucket seats” she whispered.