I don't think that Father Pyotr Sidorov liked being referred to as a "saint" by his parishioners. It seemed to embarrass him, especially when they said it to his face. It didn't help that Father Pyotr was devout and self-sacrificing, and seemed to own nothing but his clothes. He didn't drive, knew little about computers, and looked on in wonder as the kids in the parish gawked at their cell phones where once they had read books.
St. Alexander's was a relatively poor parish. I had answered an ad for a coach for the boys' basketball team. I had thought they wouldn't be interested in having me because I wasn't Russian Orthodox; but Father Pyotr had conducted the interview and I barely had a chance to identify myself before he said, "I have a good feeling about you." He gave me the job.
I knew almost nothing about orthodoxy. Except that the sensuousness of the services far exceeded anything in my Roman Catholic upbringing. At St. Alexander's, the Christmas service was four hours long. I went only once, out of curiosity, and was fascinated by the chanting, the incense, the gilding, the layers of vestments, and the rapt attentiveness of the nodding, kerchiefed babushkas as Father Pyotr went through his motions at the altar. I understood none of the Russian, and the sounds of the chanted Church Slavonic washed through my ears like a stream rushing over smooth stones.
Father Pyotr was seventy and was St. Alexander's only priest. It was a small parish in a small Maine town, and Father was a rather small man with a large, round head nested in rolls of fat around his neck. His face was tired and worn, and his thick brows merged into one over his dark brown eyes. Broad streaks of gray had infiltrated his full mane of once-black hair. He went about slightly bent, with his hands knotted behind his back, as if carrying the weight of the world on his shoulders.
I was curious about Father Pyotr because I cynically believed that everyone had a secret life. Did he drink? Embezzle? Would he, like some of those Catholic priests, be exposed as a pedophile? I kept these thoughts to myself, and paid them only passing heed. I wondered, that's all.
As the basketball season progressed, I had little interaction with Father. We played our games at the local Y. As I hopped about my bench, cheering on my small squad of boys, I occasionally caught sight of him standing in a distant corner of the gym, watching without emotion, all but hidden by the edge of the bleachers. Whether we won or lost, he quietly disappeared once the final buzzer sounded. I never knew whether he was pleased or disappointed in me. After the season ended he finally approached me and we spoke for the first time since my interview. "I hope you'll come back next year," he said. "You've done a good job."
"We had a pretty mediocre season, Father," I remarked.
He smiled. "For some people, mediocrity is an achievement," he said. "A very high bar." Then he offered me his hand and went on his way.
I thought, Well, that's that. He's a mysterious man. But a few days later I received a hand-written note in the mail. It was from Father. "Please call me," it read. "We can have lunch."
I was intrigued. If Father had a secret life, perhaps I could gain some inkling of what it was. I called him and arranged to meet at the rectory the following day.
The rectory was fortress-like, its foundation made of granite blocks. The door was thick oak, its hinges studded with brass rivets. When Father opened the door I noted that he had exchanged his cassock for a white, buttoned shirt and black pants. "Come in!" he sang, clearly delighted to see me.
He escorted me to a small, neat kitchen that looked like something out of the fifties, like the small, neat kitchen of my Polish great-grandparents. Everything was white. The metal cupboards, the stove, the floor tiles. I could picture Babciu sitting in the corner, in her kerchief, nodding, a broad smile on her moon face as she nattered to herself in Polish.
We sat down to fresh cold cuts, potato salad and tea. Not a word passed between us for about a minute. I was not good at initiating conversation, especially with authority figures. Father finally looked up at me. "I recall from your interview that you want to be a writer," he said.
I sighed. "'Aspire' is the word I used, Father," I replied. "I haven't published much. Mostly newspaper pieces. I wait tables at the diner to make ends meet."
"That's a start," he said. "What would you like to write?" he asked as he shoveled potato salad onto my plate. "Eat this, it's delicious. It's from the German deli."
"I'm working on some short stories right now."
"Fiction," clipped Father, and I sensed a tone of disapproval.
"Yes," I confirmed.
"Well," he said, "it doesn't matter. The truth is trivial anyway. Try the ham. It's fresh."
"Do you write, Father?"
"Who, me?" he asked, pointing to himself. "Ask me if I can fly." And then, after a moment, "Tell me about your plans," he said. "Your dreams. What you want to do. Everything."
He was looking at me imploringly, and so, with measured words, I outlined my aspirations. I told him about graduating from college as an English major, my failed poetry, the realization that success as a writer could not be assumed.
"You seem to have the drive," Father said after patiently listening to me. "Perhaps I can help you."
"I'd like you to write my story."
I hesitated before responding. "Do you mean something like a biography?"
Father smiled. "Nothing so sweeping. But I think I can, in the end, give you something people will want to read."
I was both intrigued and mystified. Although a kind man, it struck me that Father was unremarkable. "Excuse me, Father," I said. "But where would I begin?"
He leaned across the table and lowered his voice, as if fearful of being overheard. "Everyone has a story," he said. "If I tell you that being a priest in a small parish is like wearing a straitjacket, don't misunderstand me. I love these people and I need them as much as they need me. But their impression of me was made within the first five minutes. I was condemned to live within that impression. I don't drink, and this means I can never drink. If I were to so much as take a sip of beer in public, life would become miserable for me."
I threw him a searching look. "I still wouldn't know where to begin. I guess I'd have to do interviews, gather letters and documents…"
Father held up his hand. "You won't have to do much of that. In fact, there are no letters or documents. Even my birth certificate has been lost, which makes me a man without origins. Just spend time with me. And promise me one thing."
"What's that, Father?"
"You must not publish a word until after I'm dead."
I was dumbstruck. I searched his face for evidence that he was kidding. Was there something so interesting or timely about his life that I would be tempted to rush it to press? I asked him why he wanted me, of all people, to record his story. His answer was immediate. "Because you're the only writer I know. And what other writer would agree to such sloppy terms?" And then he went on. "I saw the article you wrote in the newspaper. 'Why Government Must be Transparent.' I couldn't have disagreed with it more. But that's not the point. It was well written and you made a logical argument."
It was the first time anyone had ever referred to me as a writer. "Here," he said, producing a small bound notebook and pen. "You can keep your notes here. But first tell me, have you ever done anything special? Have you ever taken a risk in your life?"
I shrugged. "I learned to scuba dive."
"There," said Father, with a note of vindication. "I have never learned this scuba. Would you believe I have never flown in a plane? Anyone looking through a window into my life would say I've never done anything."
I remarked that becoming a priest must have required a lot of study, not to mention faith. He nodded and gazed passively into the distance, as if I were presenting an argument he was all too familiar with and had grown weary of. Finally, out of the blue, he asked, "Do you have any secrets?"
I didn´t know what to say, but Father waved me off. He asked me, "Do you swim?"
I gave him a guarded nod. "All divers can swim, Father."
He shook his head. "I didn't ask if you can swim, I asked if you do swim, for fun, because you like to."
I told him that I did.
"I travel to the Y in Portland once a week on the bus. If you don't have work, we'll go together this Friday. Be sure to bring your notebook."
These were the last words Father Pyotr uttered during that meeting, because he erupted into a ghastly coughing fit, the kind one associates with lifelong smokers. At first I thought he might be choking, but when I moved to assist him he waved me off. The coughing subsided as suddenly as it had begun. And so I seemed to have agreed to be Father's biographer. I told him that I would be happy to pick him up in my car. His eyes flashed, as if to say, "See, you even drive."
When Friday came I went to the rectory and we drove the thirty miles to Portland. I didn't think to ask why Father traveled so far to swim when there was a municipal pool not far from the church. Along the way I attempted to engage him in conversation, but his replies were clipped and uninformative.
At the Y's locker room I took pains to avert my eyes while we changed, as I was self-conscious about undressing in the presence of a priest. When I finally did face Father again, I saw how unlovely his body was. The rounded shoulders, the sunken chest, the paunch, and spindly legs. "Do you have your notebook with you? Be sure to bring it along. We can chat at the pool."
We went out to the pool and sat on the edge, dangling our legs over the side. There weren't many other people there. A family with two toddlers, an older man doing leisurely laps, and three middle-aged women standing in the shallows, chattering.
"Ask me questions," he said. "You must want to know background information."
I opened the notebook. "Where were you born, Father?"
"Who were your parents?"
"Vladimir Viktorovich and Svetlana Nikolaevna."
"Do you still speak Russian?"
"Poorly. The kind you learn in the gutter."
"Do you have any hobbies?"
Father upended me before I could continue. "These are terrible questions," he said. "You're not asking me anything people could possibly be interested in. You're supposed to be writing this story, not me. Ask me if I was a boxer."
"A boxer!" I couldn't help exclaiming.
Before I could raise my pen he said, "I was never a boxer."
I stared at Father for a few moments. Why did he want me to write a story that didn't exist? And why was it like pulling teeth to get the smallest uninteresting detail? I couldn't bring myself to tell him that his life seemed less than ordinary. "Father," I finally said, "what exactly do you want?"
Without batting an eye, he said, "Passion."
I was more confused than ever. If there was anything Father's life seemed to lack it was passion. But an obvious question suggested itself. "Why did you become a priest?"
"My family was desperately poor. My mother used to stand on a street corner with a pair of scissors, selling the buttons from her coat. But I was a good student, and I know this word is old-fashioned, but I was pious. When I was sixteen the local priest offered me an opportunity to go to the seminary. I jumped at it. For the first time in my life I had a warm bed and a full stomach. I owe the church my life."
I asked him when he came to the United States.
"When I was twenty-three. I've been at St. Alexander's ever since."
"Have there been any special moments during your time here?"
"Any special events in the parish?"
"Were you ever married?"
"What about family?"
"All dead. I understand my parents had sandstone grave markers. The wind erased their names long ago. Are you going to swim?"
"I don't think so."
"You must," he insisted. "Otherwise it's a waste to go through the trouble of driving out here and changing. Go for a quick swim."
I felt a welling of pity for him. Although I had gleaned a couple of moderately interesting details about his life, the whole of it wouldn't seem to call for more than a footnote, the kind of item one sees in a routine death notice in the papers. If I were to write his story now, it could be summarized as, "Father Pyotr Sidorov was born in Minsk. He entered the seminary as a teenager and remained a devoted servant of the Russian Orthodox Church until…" Who could be interested in such a gloss? I asked him if he was going to swim as well. His answer surprised me.
"I don't know how to swim." He gazed out over the water. "I don't know how," he repeated. "I come here to look at the women. I appreciate them. I like the shapes of their bodies. So many more details than men have. And every detail a little secret of its own. Every fold is a little church that a man was meant to worship at."
When Father looked at me again he noted my expression. "Where is your notebook?" he asked. "This is what you should be writing down."
"Are you sure you want me to write that down?" I asked.
For the first time, he seemed angry. He took the notebook from my hands and cocked his arm back, as if preparing to fling it into the pool. "You're too afraid to be a writer," he coughed. "I said I wanted passion. Maybe you should be writing a cookbook. Then you wouldn't have to take any risks. An artichoke is an artichoke."
I stared deeply into Father's eyes. He sat there frozen, still holding the notebook over his head. How could a man of such emotions not have done anything interesting in his life? If he had been utterly content with his lot I could have understood this. But he seemed on edge at some very deep level, as if he were sitting on a box containing a wild animal. I put my hand out and asked for the notebook. He returned it to me, I wrote down the details of what he had told me, and then I slipped into the water and swam three laps, after which we changed and drove home. During the return trip not a word passed between us until we got to the rectory. "I can't see you tomorrow," he said. "I'm busy on Saturdays."
At that moment he had another of his coughing fits. His face turned purple as I watched in a state of arrest. He finally inhaled deeply and cleared his throat. Once again, there wasn’t one word of explanation before I left him.
On Sunday I attended the service at St. Alexander's. I couldn't say why. I felt, in some way, compelled. It was nowhere as long, or ornate, as the Christmas service. I sat in the back and listened. There were no more than thirty people present, most of them elderly. An old man in a sweater with holes in the elbows stood off to the side, jabbering to himself in Russian. Some of the women were dressed in black and wearing black headscarves. If they were anything like my Polish relatives, they were mourning relatives who may have died decades ago.
For a while I had the pew all to myself. And then, halfway through the service, someone slipped in at the other end. The woman was dressed in fashionable clothes, wearing a bright headscarf imprinted with yellow daisies. She had a nice figure and I wondered why a young woman would come alone to a small country church. Then she glanced at me and I immediately saw that she was much older than I had thought. Perhaps sixty. A wisp of gray hair curled out from under her headscarf. But there was something lovely about her face. She had high cheekbones and large, round eyes. Another thing that heightened my appreciation of her was that she didn't seem to be wearing makeup. She smiled at me.
I found myself glancing over at the woman from time to time during the service. Like me, she made no response to Father Pyotr's chanting. She was probably a visitor, then. Just after the offertory I turned my head again and she was gone.
I also wanted to leave, but Father had seen me and I felt it would be disrespectful to simply disappear. After the congregants left the church he came over to me. "Gathering information?" he asked good-naturedly.
"On such a beautiful day I was inspired to go to church."
"I noticed that you sat in the back. That was a good idea. It's like flying over a place — it gives you a bird's-eye view and you're unlikely to miss anything. What did you find out?"
"That I am genetically incapable of learning Russian."
Father smiled. "Like anything else, you have to want it. Take a walk with me."
We strolled through the garden behind the church. It was in full bloom, with a variety of flowers, from blood red roses to yellow-eyed daisies to purple morning glories. "Do you tend this garden, Father?"
"Who? Me? The old women of the parish take care of this place. It's a blessing to not only have my meals brought to me, and my clothes cleaned, but to have beauty thrust at me as well. I am spoiled. Pampered. It's like socialism. On the one hand it's a terrible system because it stifles creativity and you become resigned to your lot. On the other you don't have to lift a finger. People think that the Russians rejoiced when communism fell. For many it was just the opposite. They woke up one day and had to work if they wanted to eat. That's why they long for the old days. I saw in the Novaya Russkaya Slova that some marchers in St. Petersburg were carrying pictures of Stalin."
"Before I forget, Father, I never told you what a beautiful voice you have. It's operatic. Did you ever think of becoming a professional?"
He threw me a wistful look. "I've thought of many things over the years. But I told you my story already. I'm grateful for what I have. Gratitude is in short supply these days, if you read the newspapers. But I am a grateful man. To me it is the greatest virtue. I owe the church."
I decided to challenge him on this. "But didn't St. Paul say that love was the greatest virtue?"
Father looked at me long and hard for a few moments. Then he seemed to be groping for words. "I didn't say that love wasn't important. A grateful man is always thankful for love. In a way, then, yes, love is greater. You can put that in your notebook as well."
We walked in the garden for a few more minutes. Without warning he began to cough until he doubled over. I placed my hand on his back. "Are you all right, Father?"
The episode passed and he straightened up. "Once again I can read your mind. No, I have never smoked; but people aren't interested in the things one has never done. You wouldn't write down that I couldn't speak Japanese, would you?"
For the balance of the summer we met once a week, but never on a Saturday. Sometimes we went to the pool, sometimes we sat in the garden, and at other times we chatted over soup and sandwiches in the rectory kitchen. I didn't rely solely on what Father was willing to divulge but struck out on my own as well. However, I was frustrated by the fruitlessness of those searches. Google turned up absolutely nothing. I found it curious that it listed St. Alexander's Church but not its priest. I spoke with the housekeeper, an old Russian woman named Ivana, but she was also a dry well. She didn't even have an amusing anecdote to tell. It saddened me to consider that if Father Pyotr Sidorov were to die, there would be little evidence that he ever existed.
I continued to go to the service, even though it was opaque to me. I always sat in the back pew, and that attractive older woman always took her place at the far end. With increasing frequency I caught her looking over at me. Finally, my curiosity won out. One day I decided to approach her after the service.
By the time I got outside she had already taken off on a bicycle. I jogged after her and was able to keep her in view. It occurred to me that I shouldn't try to catch her, but simply discover where she lived. She turned onto the old railway bed that had been converted to a trail. She pumped along at a moderate speed and I was able to keep my distance. It was very hot, and before long I was sweating and panting. I slowed to a walk but continued on to the end of the trail. Three dirt roads led off in different directions. One was called Rock Street and bore the fresh treads of bicycle tires. I followed it a ways and immediately knew I had found the woman's home.
If one could reproduce a Russian dacha in Maine, she had. It was a small gingerbread house, double-peaked, painted blue with yellow filigrees about the eaves. Every window had a flower box with red and pink geraniums. The bicycle was parked out front. I went up to the door and knocked.
A dog barked. The door opened and a familiar face appeared. She had removed her headscarf. She smiled. "It was only a matter of time," she said, and invited me in.
The inside of the house reflected the charm of its exterior. It was neat and simple in its appointments, with a woodstove, a braided throw rug over the hardwood floor, and lace curtains. The small table by the window held tea and cakes for two.
We sat opposite each other. The dog, a toy poodle, reclined at her feet. I had expected her to begin the conversation, but she said nothing. And so I found myself in the role of interviewer once again. "I couldn't help noticing that you didn't respond to the prayers in church. I was wondering if maybe you were simply an observer of Russian Orthodoxy."
She nodded into her tea and took a sip. "No, it's not that," she said. "I'm not a believer."
"Then why do you go?"
"I have other interests."
"How well do you know Father Pyotr?"
She looked at me, her eyes gazing out over the top of her cup. "I know everything," she said. "Even that he's asked you to write his story."
My heart began to race. "Do you have about fifty hours?" I asked, straightening up in my chair.
The woman smiled. "It's not as complicated or as detailed as you think. There's not a lot of information per se. I told Pyotr you should be using his story as a basis for fiction, but he doesn't approve of fiction."
"You called him 'Pyotr.'"
I waited a few moments, but she didn't go on. "Why fiction?" I finally prompted.
"Because the theme of Pyotr's life is what's interesting, not the quantity of what he's done, which isn't much."
"It sounds like you could write this story. I've always wondered why he asked me."
"You're very perceptive. Actually, I couldn’t write it, although I was a journalist for years. I'm too close to the story, which is a very risky thing. It would be like a doctor treating his own family."
She looked at me, and I felt that her eyes were imploring. I finally peeped, "How close?"
She sighed and turned to the window. For a few moments she watched the chickadees and goldfinches flitting about a feeder filled with sunflower seeds. "Did Pyotr tell you he didn't want you to publish anything until after his death?"
"I'm the reason."
I sat back in my chair, as if to gain physical perspective on what I'd just been told. "How long?"
I nested the warm tea in my hands. "But I don't understand. Orthodox priests can marry. Why…?"
She upended me. "Marry?" she echoed. "Let me clarify. A married man can become a priest, but he can't marry after he is ordained. Still, I would have done it in private, if he were willing. I was the only one who ever mentioned it, and for a while I pressed him. At times, I still feel this to be the one small missing piece in my otherwise full and fulfilling life. But Pyotr had his life exactly where he wanted it. And to tell you the truth, so did I. Look at my situation: a lovely home, beautiful land, peace, an adequate income. I simply added Pyotr to all of this and things were perfect. I didn't need to have him around every moment of the day. And he didn't want me around all the time either. This made our visits very special."
She stifled a laugh, as if something had just occurred to her. She looked away and smiled. "You know, I once told him that someday, when he least expected it, I would kiss him in public. I think this scared him to death."
"So you gave up on the idea of marriage," I interrupted.
I had disturbed her train of thought. She looked at me and nodded. "St. Alexander's is hanging on by a thread. I don't think those poor souls could have survived an upheaval like finding out that their priest married on the sly. Remember, marriages are public records. They're used to having Pyotr all to themselves. They're held together by their habits and assumptions. If they were to lose Pyotr because of some cataclysm like his feeling he had to move away, who would replace him? Russian Orthodox priests are a dying breed."
"So he maintained the status quo for the sake of the church."
She shook her head. "No. You don't understand. He maintained the status quo for the sake of himself. Like me, he had an almost perfect situation, and he quietly added me to the mix."
"Do you think he considered this a sin?" I asked, and immediately regretted the question.
She gave a slight shrug. "A sin? Maybe. But if so, it was a saintly sin. As for me, as you might imagine, I don't believe in sin."
"If you'll excuse the question, how about right and wrong?"
"I assume this is just the type of question a writer asks, because I don't think you would judge me."
"It's just a question."
"Love is never wrong," she said. "How can it be wrong if we are driven to it?"
"People are also driven to murder."
"Yes. And murder is wrong. At some point we have to use common sense. Murder takes something away, love gives something."
I had forgotten my notebook. I asked if I could scribble on a napkin. She handed me a pen. In the middle of my note-taking I looked up. "I don't know your name yet."
"It doesn't sound Russian."
"It's not," she said matter-of-factly. "I'm not Russian. I'm not even a Slav. My father came over from Germany. He's still alive. He's ninety-one and his mind is as clear as a bell. He still splits wood."
"Germany," I said, almost in a whisper. "Are you by any chance…"
"A Jew? I thought you might have discerned this by now. I don't practice, but I am proud of my family's origins, and I respect their sufferings. Do you see why this would have been an additional complication?" And then, "Do you have any other questions?"
"Just one for now. You keep referring to Father Pyotr in the past tense."
"Yes. He's dying."
I pulled back, struggling to refocus on a world that had shifted before my eyes. I swallowed hard. "I had no idea," I managed. "The coughing?"
I firmed my lip. "How long has he got?"
"We've already said our goodbyes. Now that that's settled we can enjoy the time we have left."
"Saturdays," I said.
She smiled. "You might have noticed that recently he hasn't been available to you much during the week either."
I asked if Father would be embarrassed if I told him about visiting her. She waved me off. "No, no," she said. "He knew you'd eventually make the connection. He respects your intelligence. Just one thing, though. When you speak to me, please don't refer to him as 'Father.' It makes me feel like his daughter. Would you believe I'm seventy?"
"I thought you were a young woman when I first saw you." This made her blush.
I left Ruth's home with three napkins full of notes and direct quotes. What should I do now? Go to the rectory to tell Father about my eureka moment? I decided to stay away for a couple of days, to allow all this new information to settle in, and to adjust to the reality of his illness. When I finally did go to visit him, Ivana the housekeeper was in tears. "He's in the hospital!" she cried. "This time the coughing wouldn't stop."
I rushed to the hospital and was admitted to his room. There he lay, with a tube in his nose and one in his right arm. He looked pale and exhausted, as if he were dissolving. "I think I would have preferred to fall down the stairs," he said. "I can't stand long, drawn-out affairs. I can barely stand our Christmas service." He looked at me and saw my lips moving.
"There, there," he said. "I just read a book in which the author wrote something very useful. He said, 'Death is a wilderness in which there are no appropriate words.'"
Managing a weak smile, I approached Father's bed and took his hand. "That's nice," he said. "Ruth told me about your pleasant chat. Now you know everything."
"You never told me what you wanted me to do with your story once I'd written it."
Father's eyes glistened. "The newspaper," he said. "Put it in the newspaper. The local one will do. The New York Times would only embarrass me by putting it on the front page."
"What about Ruth?"
"Don't worry about her. She's all prepared."
I kneaded his hand. When my finger passed over his wrist I could feel the rapid, thready pulse. I found that I still had questions. "Father, do you really think people would have cared if you had told them about Ruth?"
He rolled his eyes to me and let out a breath. Then he gathered himself. "You still don't understand," he said. "I am basically a coward. Further, I am a coward who is a creature of habit. I was afraid of losing the lovely life I had. And Ruth's being Jewish… It would have been an impossible stretch for the congregation."
"But do you think it was fair to Ruth?"
Father squeezed my hand. "She had a life she had delicately put together. I was mere seasoning."
"Well, maybe I'm too modest to say that I was spicy or something like that. As if she needed me in some way."
"I think she would have liked to marry you."
Father's lids fluttered. "Did she tell you that?"
"I think I pulled it out of her."
Father turned his face from me and looked out the window. "This is the wrong time to make me feel that there's something I should regret."
"She said she had once pressed you on the issue."
"Yes, but I assumed she had perished the thought."
I apologized. He turned back to me and gathered his strength to give my hand one last squeeze. "Well, you have to go now," he sighed. "Ruth is coming to visit. I like you, but I want hers to be the last hand I hold. If you have any final words, here's your chance to say them."
"Should I say something about the afterlife?"
Father smiled. "Please don't. You know the writer Kurt Vonnegut? Before he died he was asked about the afterlife. Do you know what he said? He said, 'I like to sleep. Don't you?'"
"You make me laugh," I told him, and for the first time in our friendship he let me have the last word.
I waited for news that Father and Ruth had married, that he had compromised their carefully choreographed dance at least to this extent. But there was, of course, nothing.
The death blow finally came. The parishioners, even the ancients, were inconsolable, as if Father were a man cut down in the full flower of his youth. Ivana's wailing pierced the walls of the rectory and spilled into the street. I went home and shed my own tears in solitude, because I didn't want to cry in public.
It was a rainy day with a low, gray cloud ceiling when I went to the funeral home where Father was laid out. I was gratified — I recalled what Father had said about gratitude — to see so many people there. Standing room only. There were even some residents of the local Alzheimer's facility. Father had been loved more than he perhaps knew, or let on, then. I walked up to the casket and looked down at him. He had a look of intense interest, the same as the one he wore while observing women's bodies at the swimming pool.
A priest arrived for the prayer service. He was from the Greek Orthodox church. I supposed the parishioners considered this close enough, as I had heard the nearest Russian priest was in Boston and was unwilling to travel in inclement weather. I stood in the back and found myself searching the chapel for Ruth. I guess I knew she wouldn't be there, but I needed to see for myself. The Greek priest was a young man. He wore a black cassock and black cap. His beard was as thin as an adolescent's. He began his chanting, in a voice not even approaching Father Pyotr's in power and clarity. Things seemed to be going as planned until ten minutes into the service, when a woman entered and began to move ever so slowly, and gracefully, down the aisle toward Father Pyotr's casket. She was holding onto the arm of an ancient, bent, ruddy-faced man in a worn tweed jacket.
Silence fell. The chanting stopped. Ruth and her escort reached the casket, where she leaned over and kissed Father Pyotr on his cold, lifeless lips. Then she turned and retraced her steps. An elderly woman from the Alzheimer's facility turned to an old man in a wheelchair, also from the facility, and asked, "Where are we?" He slowly shook his head. "I don't know."
Several months later I ventured to Ruth's house, but it was empty, the windows staring out dark and vacant, like the sockets of a skull. It was as if Father had had second thoughts and had returned for her. Perhaps it was something I said as he lay dying.
Robert Klose teaches at the University of Maine. He is a regular contributor of essays to The Christian Science Monitor. His work has also appeared in Newsweek, The Boston Globe, and various literary magazines. His books include “Adopting Alyosha — A Single Man Finds a Son in Russia,” “Small Worlds — Adopted Sons, Pet Piranhas and Other Mortal Concerns," "The Three-Legged Woman & Other Excursions in Teaching," and the novels, "Long Live Grover Cleveland," which won a 2016 Ben Franklin Literary Award and a USA BookNews Award, and "Life on Mars," which was a Finalist for a 2019 Best Book Award sponsored by American Book Fest and was also a Finalist in the International Book Awards and American Fiction Awards. His latest book is a memoir, "Adopting Anton - A Single Man Seeks a Son in Ukraine." His third novel, "Trigger Warning," will be published by Open Books in the summer of 2023.