Beauty for Ashes: A Story by Catherine Chandler

A Canadian Pacific freight train blasts the requisite long-long-short-long warning through the predawn quietude of this chill November morning as it approaches the level crossing in the hamlet of Dalhousie Mills, Ontario, a kilometer away from the two-bedroom brick bungalow of Daniel and Deirdre McRae.

Deirdre, a retired teacher, is neither awakened by the train’s mournful wail, nor is she even slightly disturbed by the ground-borne vibrations created by its dozens of cars, simply because, once again, she has not slept at all. In fact, the iambic clacking of the wheels on the rails soothes her restless spirit, for whereas half an hour before, she had longed for the total erasure and oblivion of never having existed, she now merely wishes God would call her home, once and for all, and soon.

But suicide is out of the question for Deirdre; though to be honest, in the past week she has more than once seriously considered swallowing the handful of Dilaudid left over from Dan’s recent back surgery, and has run the tip of her Sabatier chef’s knife ever so lightly along the inside of her left arm. Not to mention multiple Google searches on knots and nooses, which she immediately discounted as much too complicated and prone to disastrous failure.

In the end, the lessons and admonitions repeated over the span of Deirdre’s primary school education at Holy Name Academy, and their horrendous images of what “eternal damnation” means for those who would take their own lives, have precluded her acting out both on her impulses and desires in that respect. On a more practical level, she also recoils at the idea of leaving a mess for her family to clean up.

Deirdre lies this November morning on her side, with her back to the blackout-curtained window, knees bent, clenched fists tucked beneath her chin, eyes wide open, staring at nothing in particular. Soon the bedroom is still and silent once again, the train having continued on its westward route.

Dan, recently retired from his purchasing agent job at a pharmaceutical company, is snoring in the next room. Soon his usual well-meaning banter, his seemingly never-ending need for food, and his non-stop addiction to cable news, will unwittingly dash all hopes Deirdre may hold out for a few more uninterrupted hours of delicious anguish.

Don’t blame it on Dan, who is a good man, with only one minor indiscretion in the middle years of their relationship, long ago forgiven but not quite forgotten by Deirdre who, unbeknownst to her husband, has spent the entire length of their marriage unable to come to terms with the rejection and abandonment by her first love and high school sweetheart, T.J. Moran.

Deirdre and T.J. met in the mid-sixties at Johnson Central High School in upstate New York, where both were members of the debate team, French Club, and Student Council. They had much in common: both came from large Catholic families, they shared the same tastes in music, food, sports, and literature, and both were accomplished musicians. They had written Je t’aime in each other’s yearbooks, and both of them had exchanged these very words, in English, innumerable times in the front, and then back seat of his father’s 1958 Chevrolet Nomad station wagon, though their shy attempts at lovemaking had never quite risen to the level of what was known in those days as “fooling around.”

Confident that she and T.J. would one day marry, Deirdre dreamed up elaborate wedding plans that were destined never to materialize. She knew who her bridesmaids would be, where the reception would be held, and of course the style of gown and veil she would wear. She had even calculated a late May wedding six years into the future by referring to the dates under the column “Pentecost Sunday” in the liturgical calendar in her Saint Joseph Daily Missal.

But after dating for almost a year, one mid-summer Saturday night, T.J. abruptly ended their relationship, telling Deirdre that he believed he had been called to the priesthood, and that he was being mentored by their parish priest, Father Flannigan, who was pleased at the prospect of a new recruit.

Deirdre was literally dumbfounded. She and T.J. had never argued or even disagreed on anything more earth-shattering than the merits of ketchup versus mustard, and certainly T.J. had never given her any indication of a religious vocation. Just the week before, for example, they had made tentative plans for joining the Peace Corps together after college.

Devastated, Deirdre was inconsolable, but drew only cold comfort from her mother’s pragmatic advice, There are plenty more fish in the sea. T.J. refused to return Deirdre’s telephone calls, even going so far as to avoid the popular ice cream parlor where she was working for the summer.

The following autumn, after she had pleaded unsuccessfully, by way of his sister, for one of T.J.’s senior class pictures, Deirdre knew it was no use. Father Flannigan had insisted on a clean break, and T.J. was following his instructions to the letter. Had T.J. left her for another girl, Deirdre felt she might have had a fighting chance. But he had chosen Holy Orders over Holy Matrimony. And who could compete with that.

Eventually, of course, Deirdre moved on. She dated other boys, graduated from college, emigrated across the bridge to Canada, met and married Dan, gave birth to a son six months later, and spent her entire career teaching English literature in Cornwall. But the wound caused by T.J.’s rejection was as deep and lasting as her love for him had been, as first loves mostly are, and she never fully understood or accepted his bizarre excuse.

Insofar as she was able, for a few years Deirdre followed T.J.’s career. He’d become a music teacher and later on, a member of the school board. Mutual friends who attended their class’s twenty-fifth high school reunion let her know T.J. had been twice married and twice divorced. No children. He had never entered the priesthood.

So, when Deirdre found a barely recognizable T.J. Moran on Facebook decades later, she wasn’t at all surprised to read that he was single. Timeline photos and posts indicated that he was still living in his childhood home with two Yorkshire terriers and a cockatoo, that he drove a Tesla, and was still a die-hard fan of the New York Knicks, Simon & Garfunkel, Sicilian pizza, film noir, and the poetry of William Butler Yeats.

In mid-November, Deirdre came across an online article that the Roman Catholic Diocese of Ogdensburg, New York, had posted, listing the names of over two dozen priests from local parishes who had been credibly accused of sexual misconduct with a minor or vulnerable adult. Father Flannigan, now long deceased, appeared on the list, as well as an abbreviated account of the physical and psychological repercussions to his unnamed victims.

After all these years, Deirdre finally understood what Father Flannigan’s mentorship had entailed for T.J. and the other boys. The revelations in the report both outraged and disheartened Deirdre. Overwhelmed by the immensity of the betrayal, Deirdre withdrew into herself, keeping her own counsel for days on end.

Dan was at a loss to understand his wife’s sudden alienation; for though she was never known to be particularly high-spirited, nor for that matter even overly sociable, neither had she ever shown such a degree of lethargy and detachment. Both he and their son, concerned that perhaps she was hiding some terrible medical diagnosis, gently urged her to share her thoughts and feelings, to no avail.

A week has now passed since the report came out. The morning train has long since reached its final destination in Toronto. Dan stands in the kitchen, scratching his head, trying to figure out the intricacies of the coffee machine. Failing this, he plugs in the electric kettle and makes himself a cup of tea. He drops a pat of butter into a frying pan.

Deirdre appears in the doorway, takes two eggs from the fridge, walks up to Dan, and gently asks, “Scrambled or sunny-side up?”

Catherine Chandler, an American-born writer living in Canada, is the author of Pointing Home (Kelsay Books, 2019); The Frangible Hour, winner of the 2016 Richard Wilbur Award (University of Evansville Press); Glad and Sorry Seasons (Biblioasis, 2014); and Lines of Flight (Able Muse Press, 2011), shortlisted for the Poets’ Prize. Her complete bio, podcasts, audio recordings, reviews, a list of awards, and other information are available online at The Wonderful Boat.

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