For the first few hours of Iris Buckhalter’s unexpected Monday visit, she didn’t so much as mention Bonesy, which for a time struck me as surprising, but not now, not in proper retrospect. Iris truly had no idea of the chaos she was about to pawn off on me. What she did do was refuse my offers of cherry tea and cherry scones (which I felt obliged to offer, this being Traverse City), and suggest instead that we escape the endless pressures of church and the camouflaging comforts of my little Slabtown home. To effect this, she proposed that we take a long, constitutional walk.

On hearing this idea, I was, and I’m not ashamed to admit it, terrified.

Weather was not the issue. In fact, the day was gorgeous, as certain July mornings in northern Michigan occasionally are, and it would have been the perfect opportunity for a gentle stroll. No, the issue was that Iris Buckhalter, who at seventy still seemed to be constructed of muscular granite, never strolled anywhere. Nor did she walk, at least not in the manner of regular people. No, what Iris did was locomote, full-throttle, with the unhappy result that accompanying my mentor for even a short distance was like competing in an Olympic sport. I had to pump my arms to keep up, and my comfy, well-worn Birkenstocks were, after thirty minutes, giving me blue-ribbon blisters.

We must have made quite a pair, Iris and I. We are about the same height, but she’s a sort of truck, while I, as my harridan of a mother likes to put it, am “boned like a bird”. I have atop my head a fuzz of rapidly receding hair (which the breeze coming off Lake Michigan could do nothing with, try though it might), while Iris’s hair resembled a helmet, white and stiff. My small, rapid steps might have reminded onlookers of a corgi in a hurry, but Iris strode along as if like a four-star general late for an invasion. My cargo shorts and plum- colored fleece blended well with the other walkers out that day, but not so Iris’s black denim jeans and brown bomber jacket, emblazoned on the back with a fiery, almost combative Unitarian chalice.

Not far from the marina, Iris threw small talk to the winds and abruptly asked if I was happy.

That gave me pause. Was I happy? God only knew—God and maybe Iris, who knew me better than my own mother, and better, in some ways, than I knew myself. In a lighter mood, she could be as merry as a Yuletide party, but today, those pinprick eyes of hers had turned to hard black garnet, and were very much in the business of peeling back my cleverly laid defenses, the onion-skins of my cheerful outer persona. I knew that if I wasn’t careful, not to mention quick to answer, she’d flay me alive, right down to my nervous, squirming core.

Was I happy? Yes, mostly. In a way. My splinter congregation was thriving, and this despite our location in an uninspiring cinder-block wasteland that had, prior to our tenancy, served as a sizeable antique mall. Better still, I had a friend or two (more, if I counted Dale Quist, which I sometimes did and sometimes didn’t, depending on my mood). My volunteer work with Habitat For Humanity and the Father Fred Food Pantry was profoundly satisfying.

Nevertheless, a lingering sense of what I can only call dread had begun to settle in my heart. Even if I put aside the thing in the Leelanau peat bog, or the disquieting business with the skates, there was the matter of Ed and Lizzie and my deplorable complicity, the previous autumn, in their premature and gruesome deaths. And then, in the spring, there’d been my misadventures in the Neil House Hotel, with Angela Purvis. Angela Purvis, who had never once returned my calls, not in three months of trying. Angela Purvis, with whom I had somehow, at the distinctly unromantic age of fifty plus three, fallen in love.

“Well?” said Iris, urging me on. “It’s a simple enough question. Are you happy or are you not?”

“Yes,” I said, “and no. But,” I added, “I’m standing on the side of optimism.”

She harrumphed at my cheeky alteration of the old UU chestnut “Standing on the side of love” and quickened her pace.

A brilliant if prickly mentor, Iris Buckhalter, and I doubt I would have made it through Berkeley’s Starr King seminary without her frequent and mulish interventions, but even her sunny side was cantankerous. She could be loving, yes, but she preferred, whenever possible, to be unknowable. Inscrutable. No wonder, then, that even in the most intimate moments of that lengthy walk, I failed to discern her worry, her distractedness, and caught instead only the superficial particulars: how glad she was to see me, how surprising her unannounced visit, and how abiding her concern for both my congregants and my personal wellbeing.

“Well,” I said, trying for humor, “you can hardly blame me for not saying, ‘Oh, yes, Iris, I’m absolutely swimming in contentment.’ Because the fact is, I have a bad case of the human condition.”

She made not a sound in reply. A handful of cars throttled along Grandview Parkway, and gulls shrieked over the bay. We kept walking, Iris charging along, me struggling to keep up. We were walking so fast that the marina’s fleet of anchored bright white sailboats seemed to be borne back on a brisk current.

“You realize this is highly irregular,” she said, and just like that, she stopped. Her keen, stony eyes fixed themselves on mine, and her expression became an admixture of compassion and what I took, reluctantly, to be fear.

I said, “If you mean your coming here...”

“Exactly,” she said. “It’s delicate. What you did rattled the church right to the front office. Right to the top.”

I wanted to tell her that what I did was to follow the will of my congregants. Without any initial help or prompting from me, they’d split off from the main body of Traverse City’s Unitarian Universalists some three years ago, and through a friend of a friend, they’d brought me in for an interview, then contracted with me to lead them. It was irregular, of course—I had not in any way gone through the established patterns of ministerial hiring to take the job, and the breakaway congregation had not followed the protocols of a formal candidating process—but it had all worked out in the end. My church was stable, growing, and I, at least locally, was a paragon of success.

To Iris, I said, “I do realize I took the road less traveled.”

She let out another harrumph of displeasure, and gazed north across the bay, where the rising wind was tossing the waves into choppy little whitecaps. The gulls squawked louder. “A lot of people,” she said, not without a sigh, “wanted to see you disrobed. My term, that. The one they liked was ‘formally disciplined’.”

I hadn’t known that. I’d suspected it, but had never heard it confirmed. Leave it to Iris to know all the sordid details. As a Bay Area District Executive, she knew a great deal more about the inner workings of the UU church hierarchy than was perhaps strictly healthy.

“You realize,” she went on, “that my visit today is still unofficial. Nobody knows I came here. Nobody can know. And it’s a risk, it truly is. If someone from either of the local churches were to see me, recognize me, I would have a great deal of explaining to do, especially with your sister church hiring a rabbi, of all things. Nearly six thousand years of Judaism and here we’ve got a first, in Traverse City, of all places. A rabbi as minister to a UU congregation! I am trying to be broad-minded, but frankly—well. That’s not what I came here to talk about, and my arriving under the radar is not about them, it’s about you. You’re anathema, Renner. An untouchable.”

A little thrill coursed through me, which was sad. Was I really so petty that such unworthy forms of specialness mattered? Apparently. Status has always been a weakness of mine, to the degree that even infamy will do in a pinch.

“Well,” I said, “I’m glad you’re here.”

“You still haven’t answered my question.”

“Which question?”

“I asked if you’re happy.”

I suppose I must have frowned, although I didn’t mean to. “I did answer. I said I was happy, and not.”
Iris blinked, realizing her mistake. “That’s right, so you did. Don’t mind me. I haven’t

been sleeping. Which is really why I’m here.”
She started walking again, but slower this time, as if inviting me to keep up. She kept talking, too, in a sinuous patter that made me feel that at some level, my presence didn’t matter. Iris Buckhalter, perhaps the strongest person I knew in the ministry, appeared to be running on a kind of confessional autopilot.

“Maybe it’s sleep,” she said, “or maybe it’s not. Or maybe they’re related, I don’t know. I don’t think it’s job-related, or not precisely. My work load’s no worse than it has been, and my travel schedule isn’t any more demanding than it was five or ten years ago. Besides, I like travel. Or I did. But now—I don’t know. Everything’s more of an effort. Possibly I’m fighting depression. Which would make sense.”

I still had no specific idea what she was talking about, but depression rates among the clergy, not just in the Unitarian faith tradition but across all churches, of all kinds, have always been high—quite a bit higher than the general population. There’s something about being thrust into the role of counselor and spiritual guide that taxes the soul. Not that some don’t draw strength from such work; I count myself among those lucky few.

“Mostly what I’m worried about,” Iris said, “is how much I think about Bonesy.”

When she did not immediately continue, I prompted her—just as if she were a needy parishioner, and not the single most important (not to mention dominant) person in my religious life. “Bonesy?” I asked. “Is Bonesy a pet?”

Her laugh was chopped off at the knees, less amused than dismissive. “No,” she said, “Bonesy’s not a pet. She’s a skeleton.”

(end excerpt)

Samhain Publishing, Ltd.
11821 Mason Montgomery Road Suite 4B Cincinnati OH 45249

Check-Out Time Copyright © 2015 by Mark Rigney ISBN: 978-1-61922-983-9 Edited by Don D’Auria Cover by Scott Carpenter

All Rights Are Reserved. No part of this book may be used or reproduced in any manner whatsoever without written permission, except in the case of brief quotations embodied in critical articles and reviews.