A Candle

Lily rose from her cheap swivel chair. She walked to the rectangle of window and gazed towards the live oak beyond. She seemed fixed upon the outward. The soft early morning light held her. It was impossible to tell if she was listening to her own thoughts or was being scrutinized. Early morning light always held promise for Lily. She could think clearly in the hours before dawn. But as the day grew in noise and bustle she knew she would recede in a type of emotional counterbalance. Had someone entered Lily’s classroom as she stood there looking out, he may’ve pictured a woman contemplating escape or perhaps more.

“My friend, I see you don’t grow slack in keeping your early hours.” Thomas McDavid stood in Lily’s doorway where moments before Desiree Dramal had landed.

“Good morning, Thomas. How are you, my friend?” Lily asked.

“I didn’t pop a single button on my shirt when I dressed today. In short, marvelous,” Thomas McDavid said. “Before I know it, I’ll be able to see my shoes again when I look down.”

Lily and Thomas laughed together. Lily tasted again the beauty of friendship and envied Thomas’ indomitable optimism.

“Thomas, may I ask you a question about history?”

“As long as it’s not a date about when an empire fell or what time of day Oglethorpe invaded Savannah. I weary of how history’s lessons are murdered via banal questions that are nothing but recollections of data.”

“Nothing like that, Thomas. It’s about this town,” Lily said.

“Really. Go ahead, then. I’ve been here since Dr. Smith cut Mom’s umbilical, so I hope I’ll know the answer,” Mr. McDavid said.

“Can you tell me the history of the town’s name—Glim? I thought where I came from in Rook was antiquated. But Glim, it’s not a common town name, I don’t think,” Lily said.

“You’re right, of course. It means ‘candle’,” Mr. McDavid said.

“What makes you ask that, my young friend?” Thomas McDavid said, gazing at Lily.

“My surname is Rood, which means ‘crucifix’. I’ve always laughed at the fact of my last name. My family tree is a long line of Protestants; yet my last name hearkens to a crucifix. I don’t fit my name—historically. Not a Catholic back at least 500 years in my family,” Lily said.

“Glim has you thinking about all of this, does it?” Thomas asked.

“I was just thinking, that’s all. I’m still trying to find my way at Covenant and in Glim, Thomas.”

“Both will benefit, my friend. Study long, study wrong, as some of our older generations used to say.”

Lily looked at Thomas questioningly.

“Perhaps you’re our newest candle, my young friend,” Thomas McDavid said. He smiled and turned to go.

Lily smiled at him. She wished to thank him but the doorway was vacant. Lily turned her eyes outside and squinted. Sunlight fell in dappled patches on the grass, tiny oval pools of gold.

Desiree Dramal

Nathanael walked towards a rolling lectern stationed at the far end of the library opposite where Lily and Alice sat. For reasons Lily did not understand herself she peered outside to check the color of the sky. Bruise-colored clouds washed across the lowering sky; thunderstorms were moving in. March brought them faithfully. Lily swallowed and tried to moisten her throat and lips. Alice, seated next to her on the settee, seemed pleased at news to which Lily was as yet ignorant. Over Nathanael’s shoulders, under the florescent lights of the library and the gathering gray light entering from the windows, Lily saw Mrs. Ellen Aims, Donald, Sarah, Tim the Sunday school teacher from Beulah, two other men Lily had never seen before, a young woman about Lily’s age, and Thomas McDavid, seated a row behind the rest. He wore his familiar grin and appeared content, unflappable.

“Good afternoon, everyone. Thanks for coming on short notice,” Nathanael said. “I will honor your time by trying to be brief. But I wanted to honor more than just your time. We have a new addition to Covenant’s faculty.”

Lily heard Alice emit a tiny squeal of excitement. She looked over at Alice, then back at Nathanael, who continued.

“Many of you have likely known Ms. Desiree Dramal for some time. She came up in this town. But to others among us, she may be new. She will be augmenting the staff of counselors we have at Covenant. My aunt, Beth Aims, though not in an official role as a Covenant counselor, may assist Ms. Dramal as she unites with our staff. Desiree Dramal, please come forward. And welcome to Covenant.”

Most of the faculty applauded as Desiree Dramal rose from her chair where she had been seated next to Nathanael’s chair behind the lectern. Alice stood and applauded, and looked at Lily as if to will her to join in the applause. Lily clapped lightly and tried to see the reactions of Thomas McDavid, Donald, Sarah, and Mrs. Aims, but she could only see Nathanael and Desiree Dramal near the lectern.

In looking for familiar faces, Lily glimpsed a plastic circular clock above the checkout desk: 3:55. Reflexively, Lily looked out the window. The sky was ashen, the color of burned charcoal.

“Thank you so much, Nathanael,” Desiree Dramal said. “Most of you know me, and of my long friendship with the Aims family, and of my love for Covenant. I am grateful to be here. I hope to earn your faith and friendship. I promise to counsel students in such a way that lives up to the best of what Covenant means for our community. Again, thank you.”

Alice and most of the other faculty clapped again. Lily clapped, too, and watched Desiree Dramal take her seat again as Nathanael returned to the lectern. As Nathanael rose, Lily noticed that Donald and Thomas McDavid were speaking quietly to each other on the back row of chairs beyond Nathanael. Suddenly Thomas looked over at Lily and winked, as if to reassure her. Everyone but Nathanael sat down again.

“I’ve asked Mrs. Wilkins to distribute some background information on Ms. Dramal and Ms. Rood as our newest employees. You will find those in your mailboxes in the main office, if you haven’t already. Also, please be reminded that we’re in March already. That means our spring play is in just a few weeks. What’s more, you should be nearing the completion of our core areas with our students. If you have students struggling with a particular area, please link them up with the appropriate teachers: Mr. McDavid for history; Mrs. Madden for math; Mr. Bloom for science; and Ms. Rood for writing and literature,” Nathanael said. “A complete list of teachers and subjects Mrs. Wilkins has already posted in the front office.”

When Lily heard her name, she straightened. She felt the glances of the faculty. Most nodded and smiled. Finally she caught uninterrupted views of Thomas, Donald, Sarah, and Mrs. Ellen Aims. They appeared thoughtful and cautious.

“If no one has anything else, we’ll dismiss,” Nathanael said.
“Ms. Dramal will be around for a few moments if you’d like to come welcome her to Covenant,” Nathanael said.

“Oh Lily, would you like to come meet Desiree?” Alice asked. “You’ll love her.”

“Um, sure. But would you mind if I just said hi to a couple of other folks first?”

“You bet,” Alice said. “I’ll be up front with Desiree, okay?”

“Okay, thanks,” Lily said.

Lily rose and walked towards Donald, Tim, Sarah, and the others she knew from Beulah. As she did, she saw Desiree Dramal wrap herself in conversation with each faculty member. She scaled her voice low, as if to used to hushed tones. Lily felt her dry throat again, and tried to swallow. She looked outside again, just before she spoke to Thomas McDavid. It had begun to rain.

(To be continued)

Lily and Alice

Lily could tell right away, as soon as she entered the faculty bookroom, Alice wanted to talk. Alice was the bookkeeper at Covenant. She was a divorced woman in her early fifties who pulled her auburn hair into a tight bun that revealed a prominent pale forehead. She wore eyeglasses on a silver chain like a woman much older might exhibit. She had on a two-piece black business suit and pumps. She viewed herself as an intellectual, and undervalued by most people. Lily had treated Alice kindly since coming to Covenant and Alice fancied them close friends. Lily liked Alice but could tell she wanted validation. Lily had come for some paper clips and manila folders.

“Good morning, Lily. How was your break? I missed seeing you.”

“Good morning, Alice. Nice to see you, too. Refreshing. I visited some family back in Rook and took some time at the beach. But I’m glad to be back,” Lily said. “How are you?”

“Just great, Lily. In fact, I am reading a new book about hearing from God. I cannot wait to pass it on to you.”

Lily swallowed and searched for a kind word. Anytime she heard people speak of “hearing from God” she got nervous. In Lily’s mind, if you desired to hear from God you opened the Bible.

“I see. I am so encouraged, Alice, that you’re a reader,” Lily said, hoping she did not sound dismissive.

“Did you have a chance to read the Fitzgerald novel I passed along to you?” Lily asked.

“Oh, I am so loving it, Lily. Thank you. I mean, poor Nick Carraway. He is out of his league with Gatsby, isn’t he?” Alice exclaimed.

“It gets better, Alice. Keep going. I look forward to hearing your thoughts on the book, okay?”

“You bet,” Alice said excitedly, envisioning a time when she and Lily could dialogue about deep issues.

Lily thought she had said enough but Alice had not forgotten.

“Oh Lily, I almost forgot. Did you say you had not read this book about hearing from God?”

“Um, no. I have not read that one,” Lily said.

“Well, you’ll just love it!” Alice exclaimed. “I’ll be sure you get it after I’m done, okay?”

“Yes, of course. Thank you.”

Lily smiled and continued to the bookroom for her supplies.

(To be continued)

Lily (Part forty-nine)

Monday morning’s first light found Lily in her classroom at Covenant. She sat behind her metal desk in a cheap metal swivel chair. The desk was covered with worn paperbacks of Hamlet, Great Expectations, books of poetry, index cards on which she kept notes, Post-its of various colors she had stuck inside books with cross-references, and papers to be graded. Pens and pencils of various colors were in a heavy ceramic coffee cup Mr. Fred Aims bought her as a welcome. On the cup in white letters was stenciled a biblical reference: 2 Cor. 3:6.

Her classroom had one window through which she could see a live oak tree and some of Covenant’s grounds. No other teachers had arrived yet but she had learned that Thomas McDavid arrived early, too. Lily stared at the oak outside. She checked her calendar for the date: March 1. Spring is nearing, she thought, with its attendant rains, richness of upturned soil, life pushing upward.

“Holloa, my young friend! Up early again?”

Lily heard Mr. McDavid’s merry voice and caught the smell of black coffee.

“Good morning, Thomas,” Lily said, smiling. “Yes. How are you?”

“All’s well. We’re looking into some of Caesar’s weaknesses in my classes today.”

“Some other lads, too. Mark Antony and Brutus. Ever heard of’em?” Thomas said, grinning.

“I think I have.”

“Beware those lads from March, right?”

“Something like that, Thomas,” Lily said, laughing.

“Just wanted to check on you, young lady. I’m off to hang out with Julius Caesar and other men closer to my age.”

He sipped from his coffee cup.

“You still on the Mississippi with Pip and Miss Havisham?”

“Well, how about in 19th century England with Pip and Miss Havisham and Denmark with Hamlet?” Lily asked.

“Yes, of course, just like I said.”

“Right, Thomas. Have a good morning, okay?”

Mr. McDavid stepped backwards and looked back up the hallway, then stepped forward again into Lily’s room.

“Ready to tame Covenant’s shrew?” Thomas asked.

“Huh?”

“You will see soon.”

Thomas McDavid departed, leaving only the smell of his black coffee. Suddenly Lily heard the sound of Beth’s heels and the metallic clinking of bracelets.

(To be continued)

Lily (Part forty-one)

“Good morning, Ellen,” Donald said. Turning his right shoulder and hip to Ellen Aims, he hugged her as two friends of many years.

“Good morning, Donald,” Mrs. Aims said.

“And welcome again, Ms. Rood. Nice to see you again,” extending his Jergens-scented right hand.

“Thank you, Donald. Good morning.”

“Will you be returning to Tim’s class? Would you like me to escort you?”

“I’m fine, Donald. I’ll go alone,” Lily said. “But thank you.”

Ellen Aims met some friends in Beulah’s foyer and Donald returned to the front doors to greet other worshipers. Lily turned down the hall towards Tim’s class. Nearing the door, she heard the sounds of coffee cups and small plates–not Styrofoam, but ceramic cups and plates. Lily swallowed, gathered herself, and entered through the door.

“Hello, Lily. Welcome,” Tim said.

“Thank you. Am I late?”

“Not at all. Beth brought some goodies for the class today. Please, come enjoy some.”

Lily suddenly tasted bile on the back of her tongue. Lily pictured Beth’s ravenous fake nails with black polish and her scorched hair, even before she heard the voice.

“Oh hi, Ms. Rood. You came back. Well, I brought treats for our class but you are welcome to some, if you like,” Beth said.

No word of Beth’s cabal at Covenant had penetrated the Sunday school class. Lily feigned a smile towards Beth’s overture but said nothing for now. Lily scanned the room. Where was Nathanael? Or his parents? Or Ruth?

“Everyone, may I have your attention, please?” Beth announced. Again the bile on Lily’s tongue.

“You guys know how much I value our wonderful Sunday school class. My bringing some dishes of breakfast goodies is just to show how much you guys mean to me.”

The clink of Beth’s bracelets, her ruined orange hair. Lily looked for a chair in which to sit.

‘Thank you, Beth, for the breakfast,” Tim said. “I’ve no doubt we appreciated your thoughtfulness.”

Lily felt herself collapse onto a chair. “If we could all wrap up breakfast, we will get started in just a moment,” Tim said.

Members of the class made towards the trash can to throw away their napkins.

“Tim, may I say one more thing?”

“Of course, Beth. Go ahead.”

“If you guys will just clean the outside of the cups and plates, I’ll take care of the rest when I get home after church,” Beth said. “I hope you all enjoyed it.”

Lily tried to swallow but her tongue felt fat in her mouth and tasted of alkaline.

(To be continued)

Lily (Part thirty-nine)

Lily gathered her belongings from her desk—books, notebooks, and Post-its she wrote on throughout the day. The air carried the scent of Jergens from Donald standing nearby. The smell reminded Lily of her grandparents—age, wisdom, discernment. “I’m ready, Donald,” she said.

“I hope it is alright that I showed up unannounced, but what I have to tell you cannot wait.”

“Then I am glad you came,” Lily said. “I guess this means all is not well?”

“Perhaps it should wait until we sit down over coffee,” Donald said.

“I’ll meet you there in 15 minutes then, okay?”

“I’ll be there.”

Lily checked her mailbox in the office on her way out–messages to call parents, rosters with students’ names, dates of faculty meetings, and a coffee mug with a Dickens quote: “Reflect upon your present blessings — of which every man has many — not on your past misfortunes, of which all men have some.” Thomas McDavid had purchased it for her. Lily smiled to herself.

Lily’s mind raced en route to the Cup-n-Saucer. Donald was not nosy, so his coming to Covenant, and to Lily’s classroom, augured serious news. When she pulled into the Cup-n-Saucer’s parking lot, she saw Donald’s profile through the café’s window.

“I already ordered you a coffee,” Donald said upon Lily’s entrance, “is that okay?”

“Of course. But why do I think you didn’t come to Covenant today to ask me to coffee?”
“It’s about Beth,” Donald said. “I’m afraid she has stirred things up for you, and for Covenant.”

“What now?” Lily asked.

“She contacted us on the board to say that her father made a mistake in hiring you.”

“A mistake? Her father made a mistake? What does that even mean?” Lily asked.

“She claims that you had students in your classroom after normal school hours, and that…”

“I was teaching them how to write better. Would she have me teach them on the gym floor in front of the bleachers?”

“I understand, Ms. Rood. But there is more. She is claiming that you left your school in Rook prematurely by breaking your contractual obligations,” Donald said. ‘Moral turpitude’ is the phrase she used.”

“The phrase she used where? To whom?” Lily remonstrated.

“She is going behind the scenes, behind your back, if you will, Ms. Rood. She is talking about you–not just at Covenant, but to the school board, and even about town. Some people, because you are not from here, might believe her. That is the way she works.”

“So I am presumed guilty? Am I hearing this correctly? Her father is the one who hired me, for heaven’s sake!”

Donald fell silent and stared at Lily.

“I don’t understand, Donald. I was recruited by her father…by your friend…Fred Aims. And yet his baby daughter is determined to destroy me. Why?”

“How old are you, Ms. Rood?”

“I’m forty. But what kind of question is that? What does that have to do with what we’re discussing?”

“How old do you think Beth is?” Donald asked.

“A few years younger than I am probably. Why? I don’t understand what you’re driving at, Donald. I came here to teach, to find a few friends, to find a church where I could fit in and serve, and yet…” Lily said.

“Do you think Beth might see your move here differently than you do?”

“What if she does? How is that my concern? I’m no threat to her,” Lily said.

“Do you get along with Sarah and Nathanael?”

“I do. Quite well, actually. Why?”

“How about with Ruth?” Donald continued.

“I do, Donald. Why?”

“And what would you say is your standing with the faculty at Covenant since you came on board?”

“It’s solid, I think, Donald. But why will you not tell me what you’re driving at?” Lily pleaded. “You said she claims her father made a ‘mistake’ and that I’m guilty of ‘moral turpitude.’ I need specifics. What mistake did he make? And will anyone show me my moral turpitude? For heaven’s sake, I drink black coffee and read the classics—how much moral turpitude could I commit?”

“Sarah and Ruth Aims moved off after high school. They eventually returned, but only after a lot of water was under the bridge,” Donald said.

“Yes, so I’ve heard. But what does that have to do with me?”

“Beth has been here her whole life. The people know her. For better or worse, she’s part of the soil here. That carries clout with many folks around here. When people move off, even for education, resentment sets in for many locals,” Donald said.

“Okay. I get that. That’s not unusual for small town life. But again, what does that have to do with me? I did not grow up here,” Lily said.

“Exactly. You are not of this soil, at least in some people’s thinking. Beth fears that.”

“You make it sound like the county limit signs mark off people’s worth instead of the state’s geography,” Lily said.

“That is not far from the way some people may see it, Ms. Rood. I’m a farmer; we deal in acres, in boundaries, in rows and furrows.”

“Yes? Go on,” Lily said.

“Beth is a farmer’s daughter.”

“Yes, but so are Sarah and Ruth. So are countless other daughters across the South. What are you saying?”

“Perhaps Beth does not like her acreage being encroached upon, if you will,” Donald said.

“Acreage? That is the way this is seen now? I came to teach, to farm young minds, if you want to use that language. But that is the extent of the agricultural analogy. I am not confrontational by nature; anyone who knows me would tell you that. But I’m being maligned and defamed here, and I don’t deserve it, Donald.”

“Change, shifting of the rows, if you will, is hard, Ms. Rood—especially for some,” Donald said.

(To be continued)

Lily (Part thirty-eight)

Lily bore the mockery as well as she was able. But she knew Michael and other perceptive students would detect the bloodless Beth wounds. Lily’s mind divided: should she forsake Covenant and return to Rook, or continue at Covenant, Beth notwithstanding? Her body mocked her, too. Her hip ached, and her reflection in the trophy case confirmed her skin’s pallor, thinking My frame and face betray me. She wrestled with the desire to be alone and the desire to be encouraged by Thomas McDavid, Donald, or Nathanael. Today, Lily felt an alien at Covenant.

As her teaching day ended, she stared at the top of her desk and at her lectern—notes she had made on Great Expectations and Hamlet written on Post-its. Lily stretched her right hand towards her copy of Hamlet when she heard Donald call her name.

“How about a coffee from the Cup-n-Saucer—my treat?” Donald asked.

“I’m in,” Lily said. Donald vanquished her longing for solitude.

“Is it okay if I stay in your room after school? After all, I’m old enough to be your father?”

“Oh, Donald,” Lily laughed, “thank you for that. I needed to smile.”

“I remember days farming, when Fred Aims and I used to swap stories of demonic angels that ate our corn, peanuts, and soybeans. Our wives would look at us like we were as dumb as fence posts, but Fred and I had to get a laugh amidst the trials of farming. I am not a book person, Ms. Rood, but I’d assume teaching is like that some days…” Donald said.

“I think there’s a special fence post with gray streaks and a bad hip out there with my name on it,” Lily said.

“Come on, Ms. Rood, I think you’ll need to drink your coffee black for what I’m going to share with you today.”

(To be continued)