Lynette stuffed her jeans into the duffle bag, fell back into a chair, and stared at the peagreen fields where yellow poppies poked out in clusters so vivid they seemed to light the Cronkhill, Shropshire countryside. The scene in the photo on the National Trust calendar above her desk brought back memories of when she and her husband Francois spent a summer in England. It also reminded her of the years growing up on a farm, years when her father had been robust and healthy—and oh, so strong. Although small-framed, not six-feet tall, her father had huge biceps, sinewy forearms, and sturdy legs. In fact he’d been the strongest man she’d ever known—lifting the front ends of cars by himself, tossing huge bales of hay upon a truck-bed. Of course, their farm hadn’t been in England, where trees aligned on the horizon in eerie formations emulating the black specters in St. Vitus’s dance. No, they’d farmed 4,000 acres of rolling hills just outside Clinton, Missouri. And tonight, those days seemed more real than the last three years had been.
His death a year ago had hit her hard—harder than she’d ever imagined. She still kept listening for his voice, searching for his face in crowds or when she stepped into the neighborhood diner with potted ferns in its windows and booths styled like those from the 1950s, a place she’d often frequented with her parents. It seemed as if she should run into him there—or that perhaps he was still in the extended care home, the Greens in Kansas City, where she last saw him alive. If a person could call it alive: The images of his eyes narrowing into slits that made him look like some lizard, the gurgling sounds he made when he tried to talk with a phlegm-clogged throat during his last two months—and then, the body with pale, waxy skin in the casket still seemed surreal to her. It had been a strange movie: it couldn’t be real. Somewhere, her father still walked this earth intact, she knew it.
Then two months afterwards, the events with Francois had made things worse. In fact, it’d been ten months minus two days since they’d made love. She sighed and inhaled on her menthol cigarette with ink drawings of flowers circling its filter. It’d actually been ten months plus two days since they’d truly made love--panting and clinging to each other--for she preferred scenes of them lying wrapped in each other’s arms, calves draping one another, to vertical experiments in the office chair, as their last encounter had been.
Staring at the calendar still, she focused upon a ewe nursing two lambs when she leaned back in the wicker chair Suddenly, she heard a clatter outside on the asphalt, she was sure. Her long, black hair flying, she raced down the stairway, taking steps two at a time, grabbed a flashlight from the kitchen counter, and stepped outside. A gibbous moon shone enough light that she could see two rabbits scampering behind bushes. But what had made that noise? On the driveway, something glittered, almost like diamonds. She glanced around the backyard, then shuffled over to the shiny spot. The glittery fluid there reminded her of the Wine Ceremony.
As she reflected upon the strange ceremony tonight, she considered that it was then the schism between Francois and her had begun. It was two years ago. They’d joined the Universality Church. Its reverend, a fat Korean with a perpetually sweaty neck, had insisted that they partake in the ceremony, which followed the Matching Ceremony. Of course, because the two of them had chosen each other five years before, the reverend said they needn’t participate in the Matching Ceremony—a ritual where the reverend selected mates for Universality members—or Unies—from his huge collection of members’ photos. He’d matched couples as if they were faces on playing cards in some game of Crazy 8s.
That day, the old Korean had brushed his nose with a stubby red knuckle and explained, “The Wine Ceremony is essential.” His voice was frail, high-pitched, in contrast with his abundant body. “All Unies undergo the Wine Ceremony.” The holy man then belched and swelled the air with tripe-like scents.
Today, memories of her father and then, the Wine Ceremony, sent acid churning in Lynette’s throat. She could still see and smell the red-streaked wine. The red streaks were drops of blood from the Spiritual Parents, the Reverend and Mrs. Yung Sung Ghuune. It had smelled acrid, like urine, and had tasted more acrid than vinegar. After tasting the wine that day, Lynnette had swooned, then lumbered from the hotel lobby, staggered into the parking lot, and spewed out the blood-laced wine. The drops of blood curled into circles on the glittering asphalt. They whirled into three unclosed circles with spinning tails—like miniature Milky Way galaxies forming sixes on top of the black tar. She’d never confided to Francois that she’d vomited the Spiritual Parents’ blood. But in retrospect, it seemed that might have been significant, especially because the ceremony was purportedly “symbolic.” According to the reverend’s creed, The Devout Principality, the reverend symbolized Adam, the bride represented Eve, and the groom became Lucifer. Symbolically, then, she’d become married to the pudgy Korean. The thought made her want to vomit again.
At least, thoughts of her father and the image of the spiritual leader had ousted the yearnings attacking her all day. Flesh, just flesh, she’d repeat aloud. Earlier, she’d wanted to scream when she’d remembered Francois and their intimate times together. She’d even started to rock back and forth on her chair. Then, she’d stopped and re-considered: Surely her love for her husband wasn’t built upon fleshly love. It was a Sacrament. Long before the Wine Ceremony, a Catholic priest had united her with Francois. And it wasn’t like they’d spent most their lives together humping like rabbits. Nonetheless, she missed his physical presence—and his embrace. At least, the Reverend Yung Sung Ghuune had allowed her husband to see her the past weekend. It’d been so intense, too. They’d chatted with water-rimmed eyes, staring with hunger, their faces almost exploding into each other. But they couldn’t touch. Not for 26 more months. Minus 14 days.
What frustrated her more was that the entire ordeal seemed worthless. The coerced chastity hadn’t increased her spirituality as Ghuune and Francois had averred it would. In fact, it appeared to create the opposite effect. Before she and Francois had joined the Unies, she’d generally been content just being near her husband. But now that the reverend had cloistered them from each other, it seemed at least once a week, and many times, more frequently, lusty feelings overwhelmed her, caused her to become obsessed with sexual thoughts, as they had earlier this morning. She hated the experiences.
She squinted at her monitor, crossed her arms, knotted her fists and pressed them against her nipples. Then, she crossed her legs tightly. At times like these, she wanted to strangle the reverend—twist his fat, sweaty neck until his fat, sweaty head fell from his fat, sweaty, Patchouli-scented body. Instead, she sighed again, inhaling only the dusty smell of the office, and dropped the cigarette into an ashtray.
The phone rang.
“Lynn,” groaned the tear-riddled voice from the receiver. Lynette recognized Shirley’s voice. “Can I come over? I can’t stand it anymore. I can’t sleep, and I can’t think of anything but Ralph.”
It was one-thirty a.m., but Lynette answered, “sure.” Shirley had been away from her husband Ralph, another Unie the reverend had separated from his spouse, for only two months. Nonetheless, Lynette realized that the first six months were always the worst: She’d equated her experience during that time as tantamount to that of a junkie coming off heroin. But Lynette had no equivalent to methadone—unless it were the bawdy masturbation. And after any of those acts, she’d cry into a pillow, clutch the pillowcase, and twist it tightly around her neck. Each of those acts were so empty, they left her feeling hollow. She looked at the calendar once again and exhaled smoke at the nursing lambs. The scene also reminded her of Thomas Hardy’s tales. Hardy, too, had understood the feelings death leaves in its wake. “When death enters a house, an element of sadness and an element of horror accompany it,” he wrote in Desperate Remedies. Her father’s death had left her sad, but the black clouds resulting from Francois’s departure shook her with horror. Yes, her situation was desperate, ludicrous. Purity be blasted. She wasn’t waiting another twenty-six months. Neither, she decided, should Shirley.
Lynette packed perfume and soap into the bag that she’d take on the plane if she could talk Shirley in joining her in the flight.
When Shirley veered her ’93 Pontiac into Lynette’s drive, tears still rolled down her chubby face. She shoved open the caved-in door that had recently lost a battle with her chain-length fence, and she whimpered again when she waddled across Lynette’s small lawn to the porch. She looked at the porch light encased in smoky white glass, and when she stretched toward the doorbell, Lynette flung open the door. A key chain dangled from the deadbolt lock where Lynette had once again left her keys.
Shirley quit crying. In fact, she stifled a grin while she shook her head and tugged at the keys. “You’re asking a burglar to step right in.”
Lynette glanced at the lock, grimaced, then sighed. She held out her hand to take the keys. “Spacey this evening.” She whirled around and stepped back inside. “Coffee or wine?”
“Coffee.” She sniffed. “It’s late—but I’m so down—”
Lynette glanced back at her friend. “That bad, huh?”
Shirley nodded. “I wouldn’t mind—it’s just that it gets so intense sometimes. I don’t understand it, either. All day at the office, everything was fine. Settled a claim we’d been struggling with for weeks. But then, tonight—” She groaned and plopped into a chair in the kitchen. “I’m taking tomorrow off. I can’t stand it anymore.”
Lynette fondled the clay handle of the mug she handed Shirley. The mug was a remnant from Lynette’s days at a potter’s wheel, when she’d swirled pounds of red and blue-gray clay into mugs, plates, bowls, and vases. For several months now, she hadn’t the energy to work at the wheel. The fact was, she couldn’t focus enough on anything since Francois had moved to Washington, D.C. Now, she, too, plopped into a kitchen chair across from Shirley. “Essentially, this frustration exhausts me. But I’ve figured out what to do.”
Shirley blew the steam from her coffee. “What?”
“I’m going to seduce him.”
“Francois? How?” Shirley blinked. “When you do get to see him, the Goon loiters around like some watchdog in heat.”
Lynette pursed her lips. “That isn’t so much the problem.” She exhaled a smoke ring and watched it dissipate. “Essentially, Francois’s belief in the Goon is the problem.” Wrinkling her nose, she stared back at Shirley. “I doubt that Francois would be me touch him even if the Goon were in another city.”
Shirley tilted her head to the left. One of her frizzy curls slid over an eye.
Lynette smiled. “So I must lead Francois to the Truth.”
Shirley wrinkled her nose. “How?”
“I’m not sure.” Lynette smiled. “But I’ve considered getting him drunk.”
Shirley set down her coffee and crossed her arms. “How will you smuggle booze into the commune?”
Lynette sighed then squinted. “That I haven’t quite figured out. But there’s a way.” She leaned back in the chair. “And there must be a way to destroy that blasted commune, too. We must beat that Goon at his game—you and me.”
Shirley shuddered. “Me?”
Now Shirley squinted and shook her head. “I can’t help you with this one, Babe. It’s all I can do to make it through a day.”
Lynette leaned toward her friend and spoke almost in a whisper. “I need you, Shirley. I can’t do it alone. There’s too much opposition.”
Shirley groaned and looked at the coffeepot. “What can I do?” She looked back at Lynette. “We’ll be arrested if we bomb the commune. I mean, really, it’s in D.C., the absolute headquarters of law and order. And with all the security alerts—”
Lynette leaned back again and pulled a knee to her chest. She focused upon her maroon toenails. “Bombing the commune would do it. All Francois can do professionally is write and edit. If we blow up the publishing house, that’d get Francois out of the movement long enough for us to re-connect.”
“But he’ll be out of a job.”
Lynette sighed. “He can find another. Editing The Lines has helped his career enough.” She knit her eyebrows and looked back at her friend. “We’ll stop the Goon’s propaganda machine, too. We’d help other women.”
“Lynette, you can’t be serious—a bomb?”
Lynette laughed. “Hey, you gave me the idea.”
“It was just an expression—”
“But that’s it! The answer.”
Shirley crossed her arms again. “How would we get a bomb anyway? It’s not like we can order one from the Sears catalogue.”
“We could find it on the Internet. Hey, regular people—well, perhaps not so regular, but people like the IRA and terrorists have been bombing places for the last two decades. Of course, I’m not sure a pipe bomb would do it.” Lynette scratched her head.
“But we aren’t terrorists. At least, I’m not. And even if I’ve only known you two months, I don’t think you are either.”
Lynette smiled. “No, I’m not. But desperate means for—”
Shirley widened her eyes. “I’m desperate, too. But you’re talking a bomb—and bloodshed.”
Lynette shook her head. “No bloodshed. We must do it when no one’s there. I don’t want to hurt anyone. We just have to stop that evil machine.”
“I dunno.” Shirley rose and warmed her coffee. “Sounds awfully risky.”
Lynette shrugged. “Life’s risky.”
After sitting back down, Shirley drew a hand to her lips and began chewing the edge of a nail. “Gosh, Ralph’s changed so much—like your Francois. He used to call me ‘Babycheeks’ all the time, especially when he phoned. And he’d tell me how much he missed me. But the last couple of times, he’s sounded so gruff. And two days ago, he snarled at me. ‘You know I’m busy,’ he snapped. “I can’t just piddle my time away on the phone.’” I hung up on him. He called me back and apologized. But I dunno. Sometimes, I worry that reverend will encourage him to divorce me.”
“Yeah. And maybe fix him up with another Goonie.” Lynette felt tears start to rim her eyes. She’d worried about divorce, too.
“Now, don’t you start bawling, too.” Shirley patted one of Lynette’s shoulders. “If you crack, I’ll start wailing.”
“See—that’s why we must do something. Otherwise, we’ll just sit around and cry. Or take a thousand cold showers a day. I’ve tried fasting, staying ‘busy.’ It isn’t enough. And it isn’t just the horniness that kills me. I need him to be my partner again, to work with me. I need him just to touch me—kiss me.”
“I know, I know.” Shirley groaned. Then she picked up her mug, sipped a bit of coffee, and stared at Lynette. “Oh well, shoot. Anything beats what I’m going through. Even a stint in jail.”
Lynette blinked then smiled. “That’s only if we get caught.” She frowned. “And we won’t.” She smiled again.