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Chapter no 28 – Saints

Lesson, in Chemistry

“Madeline,” the city librarian said. “What can I help you with today?” “I need to find an address for a place in Iowa.”

“Follow me.”

The librarian led Madeline through the warren of the library, pausing briefly to chastise a reader for turning down corners of pages to mark places and another for propping his legs up on an adjacent chair. “This is the Carnegie Library,” she whispered angrily. “I can bar you for life.”

“Up here, Madeline,” she said, leading her to a shelf of phone books. “You said Iowa, correct?” She reached up and pulled down three thick volumes. “Any town in particular?”

“I’m looking for a boys home,” Madeline said, “but with a girl’s name.

That’s all I know.”

“We’ll need more information than that,” the librarian said. “Iowa isn’t small.”

“I’d put my money on Sioux City,” came a voice from behind.

“Sioux isn’t a girl’s name,” the librarian said, turning. “It’s an Indian name—oh, Reverend, hello. I’m so sorry— I forgot to find that book you wanted. I’ll do it now.”

“But it could be mistaken as a girl’s name, couldn’t it?” the man in the dark robes continued. “Sue versus Sioux? A child might make that mistake.”

“Not this child,” the librarian said.

“It’s not here,” Madeline said fifteen minutes later as her finger trailed down the “B” column. No Boys Home.”

“Oh,” the reverend said from across the library table, “I should have mentioned—sometimes those places are named after saints.”

“Why?”

“Because people who take care of other people’s children are saints.” “Why?”

“Because taking care of children is hard.” Madeline rolled her eyes.

“Try Saint Vincent,” he said, running his finger just beneath his clerical collar to let some air in.

“What are you reading?” Madeline asked as she flipped to the S’s in the phone book.

“Religious things,” he said. “I’m a minister.”

“No, I meant the other thing—that thing,” she said, pointing to a magazine he’d tucked between the pages of scripture.

“Oh,” he said embarrassed. “That’s just—for fun.”

Mad magazine,” she read aloud as she yanked it out of hiding. “It’s humor,” the reverend explained, quickly taking it back.

“Can I see it?”

“I don’t think your mother would approve.” “Because there are naked pictures?”

“No!” he said. “No, no—it’s nothing like that. It’s just that sometimes I need a laugh. There’s not much humor in my job.”

“Why?”

The reverend hesitated. “Because God isn’t very funny, I guess. Why are you searching for a boys home?”

“It’s where my dad grew up. I’m doing a family tree.”

“I see,” he said, smiling. “Well, a family tree sounds like a lot of fun.” “That’s debatable.”

“Debatable?”

“It means arguable,” Mad said.

“So it does,” he said, surprised. “Do you mind me asking? How old are you?”

“I’m not allowed to give out private information.”

“Oh,” he said, red-faced. “Of course not. Good for you.” Madeline chewed on the end of her eraser.

“Anyway,” he said, “it’s fun to learn about one’s ancestors, isn’t it? I think so. What have you got so far?”

“Well,” Mad said, swinging her legs under the table, “on my mom’s side, her dad is in jail for burning some people up, her mom is in Brazil because of taxes, and her brother is dead.”

“Oh—”

“I don’t have anything on my dad’s side yet. But I’m thinking the people at the boys home are sort of like family.”

“In what way?”

“Because they took care of him.”

The reverend rubbed the back of his neck. In his experience, these homes were staffed with pedophiles.

Saints, you called them,” she reminded him.

He sighed inwardly. The problem with being a minister was how many times a day he had to lie. This was because people needed constant reassurance that things were okay or were going to be okay instead of the more obvious reality that things were bad and were only going to get worse. He’d been officiating a funeral just last week—one of his congregants had died of lung cancer—and his message to the family, all of whom also smoked like chimneys, was that the man had died, not because of his four-pack-a-day habit, but because God needed him. The family, each inhaling deeply, thanked him for his wisdom.

“But why write to the boys home?” he asked. “Why not just ask your dad?”

“Because he’s dead, too.” She sighed.

“Good lord!” the reverend said, shaking his head. “I’m very sorry.”

“Thank you,” Madeline said in a serious way. “Some people think you can’t miss what you never had, but I think you can. Do you?”

“Absolutely,” he said, touching the back of his neck until he located the small chunk of hair that was slightly too long. When he went to visit a friend in Liverpool, they’d gone to see a brand-new musical group called the Beatles. They were British and they had bangs. It was nearly unheard of for men to have bangs, but he found he liked their look almost as much as he liked their music.

“What are you looking for in there?” she asked him, pointing to his book.

“Inspiration,” he said. “Something to move the spirit for Sunday’s sermon.”

“What about fairy godmothers?” she asked. “Fairy—”

“My dad’s home had a fairy godmother. She gave the home money.”

“Oh,” he said. “I think you mean a donor. The home may have had several. It takes a lot of money to run those places.”

“No,” she said. “I mean a fairy godmother. I think you have to be a bit magical to give money to people you don’t even know.”

The reverend felt another jolt of surprise. “True,” he admitted.

“But Harriet says earning a paycheck is better. She doesn’t like magic.” “Who’s Harriet?”

“My neighbor. She’s Catholic. She can’t get divorced. Harriet thinks I should fill the family tree with hodgepodge, but I don’t want to. It makes me feel like there’s something wrong with my family.”

“Well,” the reverend said carefully, thinking it did very much sound like there was something wrong with the child’s family, “Harriet probably only means some things are private.”

“You mean secret.”

“No, I mean private. For instance, I asked you how old you were and you correctly answered that it was private information. It’s not secret; it’s just that you don’t know me well enough to tell me. But a secret is something we keep because there’s a chance that if someone knew our

secret, they would use it against us or make us feel bad. Secrets usually involve things we’re ashamed of.”

“Do you keep secrets?”

“Yes,” he admitted. “How about you?” “Me too,” she said.

“I’m pretty sure everyone does,” he said. “Especially the people who say they don’t. There’s no way you go through life without being embarrassed or ashamed about something.”

Madeline nodded.

“Anyway, people think they know more about themselves based on these silly branches full of names of people they’ve never met. For instance, I know someone who’s very proud to be a direct descendant of Galileo, and another who can trace her roots back to the Mayflower. They both talk about their lineage as if they have a pedigree, but they don’t. Your relatives can’t make you important or smart. They can’t make you you.

“What makes me me, then?”

“What you choose to do. How you live your life.”

“But lots of people don’t get to choose how they get to live. Like slaves.”

“Well,” the reverend said, chagrined by her simple wisdom. “That’s true, too.”

They sat quietly for a few moments, Madeline skimming her finger down the phone book pages, the reverend considering the purchase of a guitar. “Anyway,” he added, “I think family trees aren’t a very intelligent way to understand one’s roots.”

Madeline looked up at him. “A minute ago you said it would be fun to learn about my ancestors.”

“Yes,” he confessed, “but I was lying,” which made both of them laugh.

From across the way, the librarian raised her head in warning.

“I’m Reverend Wakely,” he whispered, nodding an apology to the frowning librarian. “From First Presbyterian.”

“Mad Zott,” Madeline said. “Mad—like your magazine.”

“Well, Mad,” he said carefully, thinking “Mad” must be French for something. “If it’s not under Saint Vincent, try Saint Elmo. Or wait—try All Saints. That’s what they call places when they can’t decide on a single saint.”

“All Saints,” she said, flipping to the A’s. “All, All, All. Wait. Here it is. All Saints Boys Home!” But her excitement was short-lived. “But there’s no address. Just a phone number.”

“Is that a problem?”

“My mom says you only call long distance if someone dies.”

“Well, maybe I could call for you from my office. I have to call long distance all the time. I could say I was helping a member of my congregation.”

“You’d be lying again. Do you do that a lot?”

“It would be a white lie, Mad,” he said, slightly irritated. Would no one ever understand the contradictions of his job? “Or,” he said more pointedly, “you could follow Harriet’s advice and fill the tree with hodgepodge— which isn’t such a bad idea. Because quite often the past belongs only in the past.”

“Why?”

“Because the past is the only place it makes sense.” “But my dad isn’t in the past. He’s still my dad.”

“Of course he is,” the reverend said, softening. “I just meant—in terms of me calling All Saints—that they might feel more comfortable talking with me because we’re both in religion. Like you probably feel more comfortable talking to the kids at school about school things.”

Madeline looked surprised. She’d never once felt comfortable talking to the kids at school.

“Or, I know,” he said, now wanting to extricate himself from the whole thing. “Ask your mother to call. It’s her husband; I’m sure they’d help. They might need proof of the marriage before they’d be willing to give her anything significant— a certificate, something like that—but that should be easy enough.”

Madeline froze.

“On second thought,” Madeline said, quickly writing two words on a scrap of paper, “here’s my dad’s name.” Then she added her phone number and handed it to him. “How soon can you call?”

The minister glanced down at the name.

“Calvin Evans?” he said, drawing back in surprise.

Back when he’d been at Harvard Divinity School, Wakely audited a chemistry course. His goal: to learn how the enemy camp explained creation so he could refute it. But after a year of chemistry, he found himself in deep water. Thanks to his newly acquired understanding of atoms, matter, elements, and molecules, he now struggled to believe God had created anything. Not heaven, not earth. Not even pizza.

As a fifth-generation minister attending one of the most prestigious divinity schools in the world, this was a huge problem. It wasn’t just the familial expectations; it was also science itself. Science insisted on something he rarely encountered in his future line of work: evidence. And in the middle of this evidence was a young man. His name was Calvin Evans.

Evans had come to Harvard to sit on a panel made up of RNA researchers, and Wakely, having nothing better to do on a Saturday night, attended. Evans, who was by far the youngest on the panel, barely said anything. There was a lot of shop talk from the others about how chemical bonds were formed, broken, then re-formed following something called an “effective collision.” Frankly, the whole thing was a little boring. Still, one of the panelists continued to drone on about how real change only ever arose through the application of kinetic energy. That’s when someone in the audience asked for an example of an ineffective collision—something that lacked energy and never changed, but still had a big effect. Evans had leaned into his microphone. “Religion,” he said. Then he got up and left.

The religion comment ate at him so he decided to write to Evans and say so. Much to his surprise, Evans wrote back—and then he wrote back to Evans, and then Evans wrote back to him, and so on. Even though they disagreed, it was clear they liked each other. Which is why, once they’d cleared the hurdles of religion and science, their letters turned personal. It was then they discovered that they were not only the same age but shared two things in common—an almost fanatical love for water-based sports (Calvin was a rower; he was a surfer) and an obsession for sunny weather. In addition, neither had a girlfriend. Neither enjoyed graduate school. Neither was sure what life held after graduation.

But then Wakely had ruined the whole thing by mentioning something about how he was following in his father’s footsteps. He wondered if Evans was doing the same. In response, Calvin wrote back in all caps saying that he hated his father and hoped he was dead.

Wakely was shocked. It was obvious that Evans had been badly hurt by his father and, knowing Evans, that his hatred had to be based on the most heartless thing of all. Evidence.

He’d started to write back to Evans several times but couldn’t figure out what to say. HimThe minister. The guy currently writing a theology thesis titled “The Need for Consolation in Modern Society.” No words.

Their pen-pal relationship ended.

Just after graduation, his father died unexpectedly. He returned to Commons for the funeral and decided to stay. He found a small place by the beach, took over his father’s congregation, got out his surfboard.

He’d been there a few years when he finally learned that Evans was also in Commons. He couldn’t believe it. What were the odds? But before he could get up the nerve to reconnect with his famous friend, Evans was killed in a freak accident.

The word went out: someone was needed to officiate the scientist’s funeral. Wakely volunteered. He felt compelled to pay his respects to one of the few people he admired; to help in whatever way he could to guide Evans’s spirit to a place of peace. Plus, he was curious. Who would be there? Who would grieve the loss of this brilliant man?

The answer: a woman and a dog.

“In case it helps,” Madeline added, “tell them my dad was a rower.”

Wakely paused, remembering the extra-long casket.

He tried to reconstruct exactly what he’d said to the young woman who stood by the graveside: I’m sorry for your loss? Probably. He’d planned to speak with her after the service, but before he’d even finished the closing prayer, she’d walked away, the dog at her heels. He told himself he’d go see her, but he didn’t know her name or where she lived, and while it wouldn’t have been that difficult to find out, he didn’t pursue it. There was something about her that made him feel talking about Evans’s soul might just make matters worse.

After the service—for months after—he couldn’t get the brevity of Evans’s life out of his head. There were so few people who actually did things in the world that mattered—who made discoveries that changed things. Evans had slipped between the cracks of the unknown and explored the universe in a way that theology completely avoided. And for a very short period of time, he felt like he’d been part of it.

Still, that was then and this was now. He was a minister; he didn’t need science. What he did need were more inventive ways to tell his flock to act like decent people, to stop being so mean to one another, to behave. So, in the end, despite his doubts, he became a reverend, but he continued to think of the remarkable Evans. And now, here was this little girl claiming to be his daughter. God really did move in mysterious ways.

“Just to be clear,” he said, “we’re talking about Calvin Evans. The one who was killed in a car accident about five years ago.”

“It was a leash, but yes.”

“Ah,” he said. “But here’s the tricky part. Calvin Evans didn’t have children. In fact, he wasn’t—” He hesitated.

“What?”

“Nothing,” he said quickly. Obviously, the little girl was illegitimate on top of everything else. “And what’s that there?” he asked, pointing to a yellowed newspaper clipping sticking out from her notebook. “More of the assignment?”

“I have to bring in a family photo,” she said, retrieving a clipping still damp with dog saliva. She held it out gingerly, the way one might an irreplaceable treasure. “It’s the only one we’re all in.”

He unfolded it carefully. It was an article about Calvin Evans’s funeral, and in it was a photograph of the same woman and the dog, their backs to the camera but their devastation clear, watching as the earth swallowed the very casket he had blessed. A wave of depression swept over him.

“But, Mad, how in the world is this a family picture?”

“Well that’s my mom,” Madeline said, pointing to Elizabeth’s back, “and Six-Thirty,” she said, pointing at the dog. “And I’m inside my mom, just there,” she said, pointing at Elizabeth again, “and my dad is in the box.”

Wakely had spent the last seven years of his life consoling people, but there was something about the way this child spoke so matter-of-factly about her loss that depleted him.

“Mad, I need you to understand something,” he said, noting, with shock, that his own hands were in the photograph. “Families aren’t meant to fit on trees. Maybe because people aren’t part of the plant kingdom—we’re part of the animal kingdom.”

“Exactly,” Madeline gasped. “That’s exactly what I was trying to tell Mrs. Mudford.”

“If we were trees,” he added, worrying about how much grief this child was going to endure explaining her origins, “we might be a bit wiser. Long life and all that.”

And then he realized Calvin Evans hadn’t had a very long life and he’d just implied that it was probably because Evans hadn’t been very smart. Honestly, he was a terrible minister—the worst.

Madeline seemed to consider this answer, then leaned way across the table. “Wakely,” she said in a low voice, “I have to go watch my mom now, but I was wondering. Can you keep a secret?”

“I can,” he said, wondering what she meant by watching her mom. Was her mom sick?

She looked at him closely as if trying to determine if he was lying again, then got up from her chair and went to his side and whispered something so vigorously in his ear, his eyes grew wide in wonder. Before he could stop himself, he cupped his hand around her ear and did the same thing. Then they both leaned away from each other in surprise.

“That’s not so bad, Wakely,” Madeline said. “Really.” But about hers, he couldn’t find the words.

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