Scott Delos stood in his living room, his bare feet cold on the pine floor, and stared dismally out the window into the bleak gray light of a mid-March morning. The light from the lamp behind him cast its reflection onto the window, and reflected him, too. He watched himself raise the black coffee mug to his lips, saw the bob of his Adam’s apple as he swallowed. Then his gaze slipped through the sheer reflection and into the little walled garden beyond. Already Margaret was outside, attired in her dingy rain coat and mud-caked wellies, digging in the dirt, planting some kind of flower. Flowers were Margaret’s solution to everything. Flowers, soup, and bread. Illness in the family? She brought flowers, soup, and bread. New baby? Flowers, soup, and bread. Death of a loved one? Flowers, soup, and bread. She’d begun digging holes almost the moment they’d moved here last fall. And they’d eaten soup and bread every night for three months.
He took another swallow of coffee, and his gaze shifted again, catching once more on the reflection of his own face in the window. He looked haggard, exhausted. It didn’t seem to matter how much sleep he got. He always woke up tired. Sometimes he wished he wouldn’t wake up at all. But the thought of death was unbearable right now, even more unbearable than the thought of life. At least in life he had hope that he might someday rebuild his ministry, reestablish his good name. If he were to die now, the only thing people would remember about him were the scandals that had erupted and ruined him. No one would remember his masterful preaching, his vast knowledge of the Scriptures, or his unique ability to make theological truths come alive.
Though he continued to stare out the window, he no longer saw Margaret or his own reflection. The coffee grew cold in his mug as images flicked across the screen of his mind—the way he’d held captive audiences of thousands by the mere modulation of his voice, the way he’d had them eating out of his hand, longing for more, more of his words, more of his wisdom, more of the truth he spoke so well. That was what staggered him, what kept him lying awake past midnight night after night. He’d spoken truth, he’d pointed to God with his words, he’d honed his native abilities to make God’s name known, and God had let this happen. There was no truth to the allegations that had ruined him. Not a shred of evidence to give credence to that woman’s claims, nor a misplaced penny to wonder about. But people were fickle. Despite the packed stadiums, the standing-room-only events when people queued round the block to hear him preach, they didn’t really care about truth, not when a scandal titillated their depraved sensibilities. Scott Delos the womanizing embezzler made a much more interesting story than Scott Delos the faithful husband and faithful steward. They lapped up the lies of the press as greedily as they’d lapped up the truth of his teaching.
He despised them. He despised their fair-weather faithfulness, their eager gullibility, their ingrate betrayal. He’d spent his whole adult life telling them about God’s love, God’s faithfulness, God’s goodness, setting them free from their bondage to fear and sin, and this is how they repaid him, by dragging his name through the dirt, with slander and scandal. And You! he thought. I gave my life for You, and what do I have to show for it? A ruined name, a ruined life.
Margaret sat back on her heels and lifted her head to the sky. A fine rain was falling, almost a mist. She felt it settle onto her face, like a caress, and watched as it condensed like silver beads on an ancient cherry tree in the neighbor’s yard, whose branches overhung the wall. She had always loved this garden. Some of her happiest memories were of helping her grandmother as she pottered about tending her plants. It had grieved her deeply when Grandmother could no longer care for the little cottage. Margaret would gladly have moved back home to take care of Grandmother so she could die in the place she had lived so long, or brought Grandmother to live with her and Scott, but Scott—well, it was no good thinking about it. She had won the argument about the cottage, at least, and it had been rented rather than sold. And she had found a good care facility only a few miles from her and Scott’s house, so she was able to visit Grandmother almost every day until she died two years ago. It had brought Margaret such joy to bring flowers each week, so Grandmother could see what was in bloom, since she so seldom got to spend time out of doors. And who would have thought that she and Scott would end up here in Grandmother’s house? That she, Margaret, would be caring for the very earth that Grandmother had for so many decades tended with such love?
She smiled happily at the thought as she turned her eyes back to the earth and the primroses she was transplanting. It felt disloyal to be so glad when Scott was so miserable, but Margaret couldn’t help it. These brick walls surrounding the garden and the house were a gift, shutting out the unkindness of the world, sheltering the beauty that Grandmother had spent her life cultivating. She had always found them a sort of shield, strong arms that held and protected her, and she came here as often as she could both as a child and as a grown woman, especially when Scott’s ministry had taken off like a jet plane. She’d been proud of him, and glad for him, and she’d smiled and posed, but she did not care to travel and sit for photographs and interviews as the famous preacher’s wife, for she was not photogenic and even to her own eyes, she always seemed to fade into the background, no matter what the background was. It was as if she were perennially washed out, pale to the point of invisibility. That had been Scott’s life, Scott’s dream. She wanted dirt under her fingernails and flowers in her hair.
And now she had them. She could scarcely believe it, and dug her fingers into the cold wet earth just to feel the reality of it, the miracle. Grandmother was in Heaven, and she and Scott were here, and spring was coming. Already the daffodils had begun to bloom, and her pansies and primroses were ready for planting out. Impulsively, she grabbed her clippers, snipped a daffodil stem, and tucked it behind her ear. Though she knew her hood would probably squash it, she smiled anyway.
As she stood to move a few feet away to plant another primrose, she caught sight of Scott standing in the window. She turned her smile on him and lifted her hand in a small wave, but he did not respond. Her shoulders drooped a bit as she squatted down to transplant the next primrose along the border. Poor Scott. He was so unhappy, so eaten up with bitterness over all that had happened. She worked her spade into the soil. He could only see that he was no longer useful and necessary and loved by large numbers of people. He had no thought, or did not care, that he could be useful and necessary to her, and that she loved him still. In some ways she loved him now more than ever. With a deft, gentle twist, she pried the primrose out of its tiny terra cotta pot and slid it into the hole she’d dug. She would have been delighted to have Scott join her here in the garden. He needn’t dig in the dirt if he didn’t want to, and she knew he wouldn’t, but he could sit on the little patio and read if he liked, or talk with her. But he never talked to her anymore, not really. He lived isolated in his own mind, staring out windows and seeing nothing, or sitting in his dark office staring at the computer screen. She knew he sometimes watched old YouTube videos of himself preaching, as if to reassure himself that all he had lost had been real. She filled around the little transplant with soil, gently tamped it down with her fingers, and looked back at the window, where Scott still stood, his coffee mug in his hand and his eyes unseeing. Her heart ached. He was fading into a shadow of himself. His eyes looked sunken in his face, and his skin hung on him like clothes two sizes too large. He hardly ate and he hardly slept.
Standing up, she moved again, closer to the window where he stood, but he did not see her. She squatted back down and began to dig another hole when a sudden motion in the tail of her eye attracted her attention. A squirrel had leapt from the top of the wall to a branch of the cherry tree and was running along it, scattering water drops like a bag of pearls bursting all over the dormant hollyhocks along the east wall. Another wild leap and he was in the old apple tree that spread its arms over the southeast corner of the garden, careering madly along its branches until he disappeared with a final flying leap over the back wall. Laughing, Margaret turned to look at Scott, hoping he had seen it, hoping he would smile at her. He hadn’t, and he didn’t. She returned to her primroses.
Through the headphones, Margaret’s voice barely registered above the charismatic voice of the preacher on the stage. Scott ignored her, kept watching and listening to the preacher.
Her voice was louder now, and he could hear a tap-tap on the door.
“I’m busy,” he called in a voice he hardly recognized.
She tapped again.
He ripped off the headphones. “What?” he barked.
A moment’s pause, then, “It’s lunchtime. I made soup. I thought since it’s stopped raining that we might eat outside?”
He groaned. Of course she’d made soup. He was sick of soup. And he hated that garden, the way the walls seemed to close him in and cut him off from the world. He settled the headphones back over his ears. “No, thanks,” he called. “I’m not hungry.” He backed up the video to the place he’d left off when Margaret had interrupted him.
The door opened behind him, and Margaret stepped inside the dark room. The light from the hall hit the screen in front of him, superimposing Margaret’s silhouette over the image of the preacher. Whipping off the headphones yet again, he whirled around in his chair. “I said I wasn’t hungry!”
She gave him a timid smile. “I know, but I’d already made it, and you need to eat. You’re getting awfully thin, you know.” She set a tray on his desk in front of the monitor. On it were a bowl of soup—he couldn’t tell what kind in the light from the screen—a plate with three pieces of buttered bread, and a mug of either tea or coffee—again he couldn’t tell which. He waited, but Margaret didn’t leave. Instead she looked around the room, taking in the bare walls, the closed blinds, the frozen image on the screen, and finally himself. He could not bear the steadiness of her gray eyes on him, and looked away. She swallowed audibly and said, “I think you should come outside.”
“I told you, I’m busy.”
She nodded. “Yes, I see that.”
He looked at her sharply, eyes narrowed, but she had turned and was closing the door as she left the room. He picked up the mug and took a sip. Tea. Very strong. He pushed the tray with the soup and bread away from the monitor, once more put on his headphones, and hit the play button. As he watched the mesmerizing man on the screen, it was hard to believe it was himself he was seeing. It was hard to believe how good he had been. Every day that is what he thought: he had been really, really good.
The door to the hall opened again, and again Margaret entered. This time he pretended not to notice her. “Since you’re too busy to come outside,” she said, “I brought outside to you.” She set a jug of daffodils on the desk, kissed the top of his head, and slipped back out of the room. For a moment before she closed the door behind her, light from the hall spilled onto his desk, illuminating the golden faces of the daffodils.
K.C. Ireton is the author of The Circle of Seasons: Meeting God in the Church Year and Cracking Up: A Postpartum Faith Crisis. An avid reader, she is especially fond of old books and home-schools her four children so that she can spend her days reading and learning all sorts of interesting things. K.C. is pleased as punch to be writing for The Cultivating Project!