Maddox Malloy stood by the French doors, leading to his back porch, and watched a flock of brown sparrows huddle on the branch of a frozen bush. He shivered despite the fact that the living room woodstove burned hot, and his modest home maintained a comfortable mid-sixties, even against the fiercest winter winds. He considered their tiny feathered bodies, chests fluffed against the bracing wind.
How can you stand it?
As if in contempt of this unanswerable question, they flittered off in a cloud, far from his line of sight.
He drained the last dregs of his now cold coffee and sauntered back to the kitchen. Though the house was not large by any standards, it felt like an echoing cavern as his feet plodded across the wood-grained laminate flooring that his wife had installed ten years before. He had wanted real wood floors, but she, being the more practical one and with an eye to their meager budget, steered toward the laminate. He begrudged her stinginess then but appreciated it now.
Phoebe Ross had been a beauty. Glorious in her unpretentious style, honest good sense, and general kindness, he had fallen in love before she knew what hit her. It hadn’t taken long to convince her that she loved him too.
They met each other’s parents. His mom and dad were conventional and applauded their son’s good taste. They had tried to like every girl he brought home, there weren’t many, but with Phoebe, they didn’t have to work so hard. She was easy to like.
Phoebe’s mom, on the other hand, was a different matter entirely. A drama queen of the highest order, she tossed traditional moral order aside and invented a world of her own where she managed the pitiful human race as best she could. Within seconds of their first meeting, she suggested a new tailor he must try, mentioned that his hairline would recede before he was thirty—she was right about that—and hoped that he liked sushi since that was her fav. The maven of self-improvement still haunted his dreams, though she had been dead six years.
Maddox shook his head and considered the half-full coffee maker. Phoebe had always loved a steaming morning cup, until the last few years. Her tastes changed with the disease, like so many things. Still, he kept making a full pot and had refilled his mug as many times as necessary to empty the bloody thing, giving himself the shakes and a snarly stomach for way too long. Now after just two cups, he knew he couldn’t touch another drop.
Just stop, old man.
Refusing to mull it over any longer, he yanked the carafe out of its snug place and splashed the contents down the drain, blurring his vision with clouds of steam. Never tears.
The dog started in, yapping away like a tiny, fur-covered alarm that ran about in a frenzy of doggy excitement.
Maddox paced over and peered through the full-sized, glass kitchen door.
A black truck had managed to get up his frosty driveway and stopped before the icicle-draped garage. A tall, burly man lumbered out and headed for the porch steps.
The old hound sent up a baying wail and then scuttled forward with her tail wagging full throttle.
Fine watchdog you are.
In his early 60’s, Maddox was still in formidable shape. He had a gun tucked away in his bedroom in case some idiot made the mistake of thinking that he had something valuable to rob. He would never actually use it. Didn’t even have bullets in the thing. But when Phoebe was around, the idea of protecting her virtue, as well as his home, had always appealed to his manly nature.
The stranger, heavyset with a jowly red face and dressed in a blue winter coat that barely covered his gut, huffed as he ascended the stairs. The image of the birds hunched against the cold flashed through his mind. Maddox opened the door and stood on the porch waiting.
The man looked up and smiled. A practiced smile, a little wary, but yet straining to reach across the frozen air. “Hello! You don’t know me, but I heard about your wife, and I just wanted to introduce myself, Pastor Kilroy. If you need anything, I’m available twenty-four seven.”
Stunned, Maddox only faintly heard the irrepressible yapping from inside the house. Oh, no, not this, God. You wouldn’t do this to me.
Pastor Kilroy seemed happy enough to let them both freeze in the winter air, as if this was just part of his normal introduction.
Fighting a lifetime of good manners, Maddox tried to shake off the tangled webs of whatever this strange man offered. “Uh, thanks. Very kind of you. Certainly. But, you see, I’m doing okay. Perfectly fine. Not a religious kind of guy. So, thanks. But…” But what? Lies slipped off his tongue like raindrops off spring leaves. With shock, he realized that they were lies even as he professed them.
Pastor Kilroy smiled, genuinely this time. Lies apparently pleased him. Or maybe he believed them, and this home of recently departed could be scratched off his to-do list?
“In that case, do you mind if I pray with you? Then I can get out of your way and let you enjoy the rest of your morning.”
Maddox shrugged, grateful to be let off so easy. What harm could a prayer do?
Without being as dramatic as the gesture appeared, Pastor lifted his arms and bowed his head. “Dear Lord in Heaven, we ask you to watch over this son of yours, Maddox Malloy. See to his needs, be they physical, mental, emotional, or spiritual. Help him to feel the light of your warmth in these cold days and give him the hope of Your presence as he goes forward. Trusting in Your love, we commend ourselves to You. Amen.”
His vision blurred, not by cold, but by unaccustomed tears, Maddox could not lift his head. Encased in a frozenness that went well beyond an Illinois February morning, he would not show himself to this man.
In some unspoken understanding, Pastor understood. He patted Maddox’s arm and clumped down the stairs.
Even the dogs quieted.
Maddox stood on the icy porch and heard the truck rumble to life, back out of the driveway, and then crunch down the road.
When he lifted his head, a sparrow hopped on the glittering railing before him, staring with tiny eyes, asking in wordless speech, how do you stand it?
It was a fine April morning, when Maddox went out to get the mail, that he saw the black truck drive down his lane again. It didn’t stop in his driveway this time. Went on down to the Given’s place. Janice had breathed her last four nights ago, and the funeral had been yesterday. Seemed like the whole town showed up, clogging the narrow roads for a mile or more. But then, Janice had been a much-loved member of their community for years.
Not like Phoebe. Not that anyone didn’t love Phoebe. Everyone liked her. She charmed both men and women with her obvious beauty and generous kindness. Always a nice word for everyone.
But few saw her alone. Her private side. Depressed, insecure, easily irritated, sometimes slighting and cruel. Rarely contented and never for long. Always in search of the next thing—to do what, Maddox could never tell. She was splintered fragments wrapped in a pleasing package.
He stood soaking in the warm, spring sunshine and shuffled through his mail. The truck had stopped and Pastor Kilroy had climbed out. He looked a little thinner, more angular than in February. But that wasn’t anyone’s concern. Especially not his. Not a religious guy, remember?
Inconsequential, the mail demanded not an iota of his interest. Yet, for some reason beyond his comprehension, he tore open the news advert and let his gaze slide over the bold, colorful print as if engrossed in the climax of his favorite novel.
The black truck rumbled to life, backed up, turned around, and headed down the lane.
Maddox exhaled a relieved breath. He folded the useless news and tucked it under his arm. Just as the truck neared, he took one, hesitating step toward the porch.
The truck slowed.
As if in consequence, Maddox slowed and turned, a plastered smile on his face. Wasn’t his fault he was caught again.
The window was already down, and the Pastor’s face beamed from the driver’s side as he leaned over and called out, “Thought that might be you. How’re you doing these days?”
His mind blanking, deflecting questions poured forth, a shower of seed pods hitting lush soil. “Fine. How about you? You been to the see the Given’s family, eh? They doing okay?”
Sadness entered Pastor Kilroy’s eyes. He pointed to the side of the road.
Flummoxed, his stomach tightening, Maddox nodded in unspoken agreement.
Pastor pulled over and parked his car by a line of pine trees.
Maddox paced over and came to stand by the driver’s window. He tilted his head, asking without being pushy.
A heaved sigh and Pastor Kilroy’s eyes filled with tears. “She killed herself. Did you know that?”
Horrified beyond all thought, Maddox’s blood froze. His heart stopped beating.
A wave and further elucidation. “I don’t mean that she put a bullet through her head or anything. Just that she never took care of herself. Always thinking of others to the point where she didn’t even do the basics. She didn’t eat right, never went to the doctor, wouldn’t let anyone make a fuss, as she called it. All the signs were there, a heart attack was obvious, but she wouldn’t go in. And it killed her.” He looked up and met Maddox’s stricken face without a flinch. “Now, the family has to pay for her choices.”
Maddox wasn’t sure when the Pastor had laid his hand on his shoulder and then led him inside or how long he’d sat on the couch and cried. But something had broken and a flood rushed forth, releasing years of debris.
Pastor Kilroy kept one hand, still beefy but not heavy, resting calmly on his arm. His head bowed, he never intruded with look or word. Just let it all come out—a gush of ugly memories, jagged cuts still seeping fresh blood.
His head aching, Maddox summed up the last five years of his married life with a final condemnation. “She never knew me. She hardly knew herself. When her moods hit, she slid into a dark hole and wouldn’t come out for weeks. Then when she felt better, she’d remember I existed and suggest something fun to do. To give us “new focus.” Always looking for a new focus—good intentions but never helpful. Just a damned cycle that went around endlessly.” He exhaled and lifted his head. Done. There was nothing more to say. He had admitted the truth. Would it set him free?
The pastor patted his shoulder one last time and then leaned back, clasped his hands, and closed his eyes. He scrunched his face, a man concentrating hard.
Uncertain, Maddox waited. He hadn’t intended to add to anyone’s burdens.
The pastor talked but not to Maddox. “Oh, Lord, we give all our pain to You. Our confusion, loss, uncertainty. You know Phoebe’s heart, as it was, and as it is now. You know your son, Maddox. Broken and inclined to sin, we fall far from Your hopes for us. We hurt ourselves and others. Help us, Lord. We cannot save ourselves.”
Pastor looked up, sucked in a deep breath, and rose to his feet. “I must head off to my daughter’s school. Her teacher said that she’s going to fail the 6th grade, and we’ll need to consider her options.”
Shocked from his personal grief, Maddox stared, his mind whirling. That’s it? Am I healed enough to handle anyone else’s troubles?
In understanding, Pastor Kilroy nodded. “Faltering steps can still lead forward.”
“But Janice, the Given’s family, you—your daughter! I’m not the only one suffering.”
“Giving a damn, despite the pain, makes tomorrow possible. Give to God the unmanageable and manage what you can.”
After the black truck roared off, Maddox, went inside, tossed the junk mail in the trash, and strode to the French doors. He stepped out onto his back porch. A cacophony of birds chirped and fluttered about, swerving from limb to limb.
How do you stand it?
A. K. Frailey is the author of 15 books, a teacher for 35 years, and a homeschooling mother of 8.
Make the most of life’s journey.
For books by A. K. Frailey check out her Amazon Author Page