Her hands were always clasped tightly over her lap when she stood next to her husband in church. Dark hair curled or pinned in a neat fashion, a permanent smile elevating her rosy cheeks. Body gliding in her short heels as she hustled around helping her husband organize the church charities, events, and behind the scene things we never really heard about. The pastor was a gentle loving man, with a gentle loving wife.
They could handle hate just as well as praise; though the closest our town ever got to hate was Mrs. Gobbins demanding they run the church more ‘old fashioned’ and ‘traditional,’ her flabby arms flailing about as she spoke; but the pastor’s wife always addressed her calmly, smile never wavering. That’s what everybody called her too, the pastor’s wife. She was a part of the pastor, like a team with an unmistakable leader.
When she wasn’t working at the church she was just like any other mom. She drove car pool and baked cookies for our soccer practices. She and the pastor had two young boys, one the grade below mine and the other one below his brother. The boys were kind too, never burning ants or giving other kids Indian sunburns with the rest of us.
The pastor’s wife walked their dog past my house at least three times a week. Even in the winter. Her breath looking like a soft pillow in the cold air and her sliver cross necklace tucked into the high collar of her winter coat.
She was always just so prim, polite and put together. So it surprised me when my mother came home from a PTA meeting one fall, after the sky had drifted into darkness, she and my father laughing as they entered through the front door. I scrambled down from my bedroom and hung over the banister, “What’s so funny? How was the meeting?”
“Oh nothing honey, the pastor’s wife blew up at your science teacher,” my mother answered easily, then she paused and looked up at me, “… Shouldn’t you be asleep?”
“You woke me up.”
“Really, did we kiddo?” said my father, his eyebrows arched up at me. I shook my head yes. He let out a laugh, tossing his coat on the hanger, then he sauntered off into the kitchen as my mother began to make her way upstairs. I followed her all the way to her room, peppering her with questions. She ignored me and began unzipping her dress and popping out her earrings as she walked. When we got to her room she went inside to change and I turned back down the hall to get in bed, not defeated yet, she would come in to say goodnight.
It was just so odd imagining such a calm good-natured lady yelling at my science teacher. I lay in bed and imagined her head growing huge and red as she screamed at him from across a table. It didn’t fit.
When my mother came in she sat on my bed and told me that it was nothing. The pastor’s wife wanted less talk of evolution in the curriculum and the science teacher wasn’t having it. It was barely a shouting match before the principal intervened and spoke about, “previously planned lessons.”
Still, it was funny to me. That a science teacher at the PTA meeting would be the thing to wipe that sweet smile off of her face.
The man who taught science at our school was the typical teacher; skinny, wore ties, was patient but had his rules, firm in his beliefs, and cracked an awkward joke every now and then. Not someone who I would think could break her pleasant demeanor. Still, school carried on the same as it had been.
That weekend at church I noticed our science teacher, Mr. Keen, sitting on the back pew. As a regular looking man, he fit right into the masses, he even hung around the steps and chatted with people for a little while afterwards. Still, I got the feeling that I had never seen him the church before.
I imagined pastor’s wife in the modest dark blue dress she so often wore, screaming at him to come to church or else, her black hair pointing it’s tendrils at him like snakes. Her face turning red as a tomato as she continued to yell, spit flying all around.
I shuffled out of church with the swarm of people and spotted her standing next to the pastor, calm and put together as ever. Her dark hair in curls that hovered over her shoulders.
Not long after that, more stories started to crop up about her arguing with Mr. Keens. Apparently, she even came into her oldest son’s class while Mr. Keens was teaching and demanded to speak to him in the hallway at once. So it seemed the pastor’s wife had an enemy. It certainly added some excitement to that winter, the only snow we had that year was gray slush in the streets and thin layers that soon became boot stamped and brown.
Kids made up stories that they’d seen the two of them fist fighting behind the school as our pastor cheered her on. Once, I heard that Mr. Keens brought a beaker to church and stayed back after the sermon. Then, right as she was walking out, he smashed the beaker on one of the pews and tried to stick her with it like it was a dagger. He lunged at her, but fast as lightning she blocked it with the bible that she was luckily holding.
The only solid evidence I got about them being enemies was one parent occasionally mentioning over dinner that, “they had another tiff,” then a brow furrow and a disbelieving, “again?” from the other.
They usually fought about the science curriculum or her one of her son’s grades, a wild card political issue here and there. In the spring the pastor gave a pointed sermon on loving our neighbor and over coming trivial angers. I think she stopped coming into school to instigate him after that.
I never believed any of the rumors as a child, I just enjoyed listening. Something about her polite and ladylike manner being snapped, having cracks in it, her being an imperfect person; intrigued me.
After a while the adults needed fresher gossip than spats between preacher’s wives and teachers, and the kids followed suit and made up exaggerated rumors about new things.
Mr. Keens came to church every Sunday after that first PTA meeting though. He always sat in the back. When the preacher’s wife stood up to address us, her sliver cross necklace lying daintily over her chest, I could never tell if she was focusing her eyes on the stained glass or the science teacher.
It had all settled down near the end of the school year but, according to my mother, they were glaring daggers at each other during the last PTA meeting of the year.
When news came out that summer that they were sleeping together, it ripped through the town like an earthquake. Another uneventful year had suddenly turned into the year of the “The Big Scandal.” Even when I go back home to visit my parents now, many years after my childhood, someone always brings it up and we end up gossiping about the old news once again.
I never knew what happened exactly, at what point the thin walls between love and hate broke down; I know only that it happened at some point during the school year, and that they got caught not long after.
As story goes, she forgot her little sliver cross necklace at his apartment one night, the one I had never seen her without, and the pastor noticed it was gone then mentioned to a friend. The next thing anyone knew was that Mrs. Gobbins claimed to be bird watching along the path in the woods that fanned out behind the playground; and through her binoculars spotted the two of them strolling hand in hand, using the trees a cover. Then she swears she saw them kiss. So she waddled as fast as she could back home to tell her husband and then everybody else.
That next Sunday neither of them was at church, the pastor’s wife wasn’t sitting in the front row attentively with her hands folded, and my science teacher had disappeared from the back row of the pews like he was never there at all. The pastor addressed it in a vague sermon about trust and a reminder that unapologetic sins get you sent to hell, but that was all he ever said about it. Their boys didn’t come back to school next year, the pastor got them a home school tutor.
I heard that Mr. Keens and the pastor’s wife skipped town together, and that she left her wedding ring and her sliver necklace on the pastor’s beside table.
Nobody in the town was really ever in contact with the two of them again. But every winter, a large anonymous donation has been given to the church without fail, for the last twenty years. I like to think that it’s her, still giving back to the community; still caring and sweet, and maybe even as poised and prim as I remember.
After she left, she wasn’t the pastor’s wife anymore. I learned that her name was Elizabeth. People started calling her that after she was gone.