Absent a Miracle


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An ex–talk show host, her cheating husband, and a plot to canonize a friend’s Nicaraguan aunt make for “pure, unadulterated adulterous entertainment” (The New York Times).

Lapsed Catholic Alice Fairweather is searching for meaning. Having lost her ideal job as a radio talk show host who interprets dreams, hopelessly in love with a husband who loves too many other women, and stuck in upstate New York with her sons and dogs, one of whom is ill, her life isn’t exactly what she envisioned as a young girl. So when Abelardo, her husband’s former roommate, comes to visit on a quest to make his aunt the first Nicaraguan saint, it feels like a sign.
Suddenly, Alice finds herself on a madcap mission to canonize a woman she’s never met, becoming intimately acquainted with the history of female sainthood, striking up an odd friendship with the eccentric head of New York’s hagiography club, and traveling to Nicaragua on a last-minute flight.
Equal parts moving and hilarious, Absent a Miracle is a quirky and sharp look at love, loss, identity, faith, marriage, and—of course—sainthood.



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Date de parution 07 août 2009
Nombre de visites sur la page 1
EAN13 9780547488615
Langue English

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Absent a Miracle
Christine Lehner
Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Boston New York 2009
Books by Christine Lehner
Copyright © 2009 by Christine Lehner
All rights reserved
For information about permission to reproduce selec tions from this book, write to Permissions, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Publishing Company, 6277 Sea Harbor Drive, Orlando, Florida 32887-6777.
Library of Congress Cataloging-in-Publication Data
Lehner, Christine, date. Absent a miracle / Christine Lehner. p. cm. ISBN 978-0-15-101429-3 1. Catholic women—Fiction. 2. Marriage—Fiction. 3. Friendship—Fiction. 4. Hagiography—Fiction. 5.Ne w York (State)—Fiction. 6. Nicaragua—Fiction. 7. Dome stic fiction. I. Title. PS3562.E439A27 2009 8I3'.J4—dc22 2008053294
Book design by Joyce Weston
Printed in the United States of America
DOC 10 9 8 7 6 5 4 3 2 1
This is a work of fiction. All names, characters, p laces, and inci-dents are the product of the writer's fevered imagination, or in the case of actual places, are used fictitiously. A ny resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, is entirely coin cidental. All the saints referred to do actually exist (in the loose hagiographic sense of existence), but in some cases the details are changed. For narrative purposes, the author has moved the mo nths for coffee picking and processing from winter to summer.
Stranger things have happened.
—Hubert van Toots, head librarian and provost, the Hagiographers Club of Gramercy Square and North America
I shall have many curious facts to relate concernin g these mimetic resemblances.
—Thomas Belt,A Naturalist in Nicaragua
The country and the people of Nicaragua are too muc h like other parts of Spanish tropical America, with their dull, lazy, sensual inhabitants, to possess any novelty. There is littl e that can be called adventure, and still less of geographical di scovery.
—From a review by Alfred Russell Wallace of Thomas Belt'sA Naturalist in Nicaragua
Sainthood in itself is not interesting, only the li ves of the saints are.
—E. M. Cioran,Tears and Saints
Many things about this place are dubious.
—Elizabeth Bishop, "The End of March"
TWO YOUNG MEN, Abelardo Llobet Carvajal, a Nicaraguan of an old landed family from the ancient capital of León, already wise in the wa ys of coffee, cattle, chickens, and sugar cane, and Waldo Fair-weather IV, the older so n of Waldo Fairweather III and Posey Fair-weather, née Pinchbeck, from Catamunk an d Bug Harbor, Maine, an incipient inventor with a tortured family history o f inventions unrewarded, are sprawled across the sofa. The sofa, acquired from the former residents of the suite—party-loving members of the lightweight crew and one German scho lar—is dimpled, beer stained, and, at this moment, littered with popcorn. From th eir third-floor window in Quincy House they can watch the completely predictable activity on the green.
Abelardo's English is perfect and at times he is mo re easily understood, even with his accent, than his friend from Maine. He says, "My sister is coming."
"Which one? Don't you have several? Have I seen a p icture?" "Only one would come here. Carmen."
"She should be downstairs by now."
"You could have warned me. How does she handle squa lor?"
"Nothing frightens her," Abelardo says.
When Carmen enters the room, it is as if the decrep it sofa, the stained rug, and the tasteless posters all recede like a full-moon low tide, and the space is taken up by beauty, scent, and wind.
For a week it is always the three of them, always together. Carmen goes to classes with Abelardo, and Waldo skips his classes to come along . She eats meals with them in the dining hall. Every evening both young men walk her back across the bridge to the turreted nineteenth-century guesthouse maintained b y the diocese for Catholic visitors with ecclesiastical connections. Abelardo arranged the accommodations for his beautiful younger sister, who takes every opportuni ty to explain that she has ceased to believe in the Immaculate Conception, the Virgin Bi rth, the Shroud of Turin, and the Resurrection of Anyone. Waldo is undone and transfo rmed. He sits up straighter. He keeps his jokes to the bare minimum. He takes cold showers whenever he can. Waldo falls in love.
On the seventh day of his sister's visit, Abelardo has an appointment with his adviser, and Carmen says she would rather walk along the Cha rles with Waldo. In no time at all, Waldo tells her she is lovely and enticing beyond w ords. Carmen tells him that she is a virgin and would rather not be, and she would love to go back to their suite and learn the ways of sex on their sofa.
They do. Carmen enjoys it more than she imagined, W aldo less so. But he is no less in love.
When Abelardo returns from his appointment, Waldo a nd Carmen are dressed and sitting under a pollen-dripping tree on the green. Carmen tells her brother that, thanks to his wonderful roommate, she is no longer burdene d with virginity. Abelardo buries his face in his hands and stays that way for what seems like several minutes, at least to Waldo. When Abelardo raises his head, he says, "I k new this would happen. I should have warned you, Waldo. This is what I should have warned you about."
Waldo says, "I don't know what to say. Your sister is extraordinary."
"Say nothing. You don't need to say anything. I kno w Carmen, after all."
Carmen says, "You are both so serious. Everything is fine. Tomorrow is my last day and I would like to see the glass flowers."
That very afternoon the three cross Harvard Yard an d go to the Peabody to see the glass flowers. Carmen is not disappointed. She is e nchanted with the glass lady's slippers. Waldo tells her those flowers grow in hid den places in the Maine woods, though it is illegal to pick them because they are so precious. Abelardo explains they are members of the same orchid family whose tropica l relatives grow all over Las Brisas, their coffee farm. Carmen says those look n othing at all like lady's slippers. She does not say what she thinks they really look like.
When Carmen Llobet Carvajal has returned to her con vent school in the hills outside Matagalpa (where it pains the nuns to love her as m uch as they do, given her apostasy), when the air has ceased to rustle and he r scent has dissipated, Waldo tells his roommate Abelardo that he would ask his sister to marry him in a second if only she were not so fearless. Abelardo would shrug if he ev er shrugged. He tells Waldo it is a
moot point because his sister will never again leav e Nicaragua (though he is wrong about this) and, he asks Waldo (contradicting himse lf), how fearless can that be?
Blizzard: Abelardo Llobet Carvajal
Alice Loses Whatever Jobs She Has
MY NAME IS Alice Ewen Fairweather. It used to be Alice Llovet Ewen, because Llovet was my mother's maiden name. All three sisters got the same middle name. I would have liked a middle name of my own, and briefly lob bied for Hyacinth. I stopped using Llovet when I became a Fairweather. Why? Because I was madly in love.
Given what happened, it would have been somewhat am using if Llovet were still on my passport, because in Spanish,vandbare basically the same letter, writ small (b pequeño) or writ large (b grande).
About two months before Waldo and the boys went on vacation, I lost my job hosting The Dream Radio Show,Monday mornings for three hours on WBLT. ("Start y our week by freeing up your subconscious. Tell me, Alice Fai rweather, and our listeners in the tri-state area last night's dream, and we'll tell you the obvious.")
The events were not related in any way. I was sacke d in December. You'd think that even the dimmest station manager would realize that it is especially in the trying holiday times that listeners need to be able to tel l their dreams, live, and be reassured. But no, without the slightest consideration for the spirit of Baby Jesus or Rockefeller Center, Trudy Swatherton, in an act of generosity s o rare it should have alerted me to the coming blow, took me to Joe's Rib Joint, and th en she fired me. She canceled my show and left the itchy dreamers of the region with no outlet, no airwaves, no listeners, no disembodied voice beckoning them to unload the l ingering memories of weird and disturbing dreams.
Trudy knew damn well I was a vegetarian and had bee n since the first mad cow scare. About the only things I could eat at Joe's Dead Cow Emporium were fried mozzarella sticks and hush puppies. I would have eaten fish (c ooked or otherwise) but none were on offer. I sat there, huddled there, beneath faux-antique wagon wheels, branding irons, cow skulls, and horns, and Trudy ordered a pitcher of beer for the two of us and told me that my skills were wasted in talk radio. I had no idea what skills she was referring to, and I'm sure neither did she. Trudy claimed she wan ted to let me down gently, but I knew better. I knew that she was worried I would re veal what I knew of her dreams.
People can rationalize all they want about the work ings of the unconscious, but the truth is that we all feel somewhat responsible for the content of our dreams. And if our dreams are kinky or perverted or repulsive (and Tru dy's were all of these), then it must be inferred that we are kinky, perverted, or repuls ive as well.
I'm not a psychologist. ForDream RadioI'd had no qualifications whatsoever except a quick way with symbols and an empathetic nature. We ll, I did have one thing: I was irrationally fascinated by dreams. I loved hearing people's dreams. Like my listeners, I had spent years waking up with the glimmering of a memory of a dream that tantalized and then wanting more than anything to tell it to s omeone, to say it aloud as a way of
sealing its occurrence while dispelling its unnervi ng connection to the conscious me. Like my listeners, I had found that most people's e yes glazed over while their hands crept up to stifle the yawns. How many times had I said to Annabel and Audrey, "I had the weirdest dream. Do you want to hear it?" How ma ny times had they answered, in unison or antiphonally, "No"? So many times that it was the morning mantra of our shared childhood. I fantasized that one day one of them would have a dream and want to share it, and then I would listen eagerly, I wou ld be the Lady Bountiful who harbored no grudges but listened attentively to the fleeting images. That had never happened. SoThe Dream Radio Showwas the perfect job for me. I was happy to hear th e dreams of perfect strangers, those strangers who were perfectly happy to tell me their dreams, what they could recall of them, because they knew I was interested. I had lots of repeat callers, and very few cranks. For those listeners who needed to hear it, I told them not to blame themselves for the occasional sick narrati ves or morbid surreal dramas that lingered in the morning. In this, they didn't belie ve me, no more than Trudy did. But they wanted to hear the reassurances. Apparently, being appalled by what one didn't even know one was thinking was part of the thrill.
During my four years at WBLT, our listeners had sen t countless testimonials to the station, and over and over they had said that one o f the most reassuring things about the show was that I was not a psychologist. That I was just like them: occasionally a dreamer, occasionally an insomniac, sometimes paran oid but always justified in being so, and benignly compulsive. I never tired of shari ng these letters with Waldo and Ezra and Henry. They listened to them just as they liste ned to my dreams, with apparent interest and goodwill. They also made fun of me, bu t that seemed a small price to pay for the attention. Waldo liked to point out how my subconscious made puns. I told him that after all our years together, I still craved to hear his dreams.
At Joe's Carne Cafeteria, somewhere on my way from the table to the street door, the hiccups arrived. Somewhere in there, my poor vagus nerve (the wanderer, the nomad, the slippery hobo) became irritated andka-bang(thirty-five milliseconds, so they say), the glottis snapped shut. I hate the hiccups, and I particularly hate getting the hiccups in front of someone like Trudy because I will try to mask them and pretend I don't have them, and that only makes them worse and prolongs the agony. Adios, Trudy. Adieu, Joe's Carne Crematorium. Au revoir, lovely WBLT.
I swallowed and tried to still the body jerks. I to ok a deep breath and imagined lead weights attached to my feet, keeping me rooted. I found I was in front of St. Winifred's on Seventh, and I went inside. I pulled open the he avy doors, and the darkness hit like a weather front. I stood still and let my eyes adju st, then moved into the nave and sat in a pew on the right. I exhaled. Had it always been there? Or had it just begun? The organ. There would be a longish baroque passage, an d then the music would stop abruptly; rustling would signal the turning of page s, and then the music would start once more. Sometimes the same lovely passage, again and again. Sometimes another piece of music. I knew none of it and it was all be autiful, all surely written to raise the listeners' thoughts heavenward and, on this nasty D ecember afternoon, succeeding in just that. After a long while I twisted my head aro und and peered at the choir loft. The organ's pipes loomed over the dim church interior. The railing hid the organist. No one else was there. Not another soul. How was this poss ible? It must have been the organist's practice hour, and I had just happened i nto the most peaceful and melodious spot in the entire city, when I needed it most. I e ven slept a bit, and dreamed of
anthropomorphized vegetables (carrots, onions, and beets) copulating on Posey's Blue Willow plates while Henry played Ping-Pong on the k itchen table, the ball mere inches above them. But of course there was no extant radio show on which I could tell my troubling dreams to eager listeners.
The hiccups were gone. Thanks to the organ, I could take the train home without the weeping that seemed to embarrass fellow commuters. At home, Waldo and the boys were sympathetic. It must have struck them that without theDream Radio Show,I would look to them, conveniently located at my own breakfast table, to satisfy my dream fascination. Waldo bit his tongue and did not repeat that I was practicing dreamology without a license or that my degree had been acquired by dialing 1-800-JUNG-R-US.
Henry said, "Tell me again why she took you to the Rib Joint. I think that is the most egregious of all. Actionable, I think."
For years Waldo and I had locked bemused eyes every time Henry had used one of the hundreds of vocabulary words he could not possibly have picked up at school and probably not even from us. But that time was past. Henry was now eight, and we were in awe of him.
Ezra, though ten, still crawled into my lap and said, "I'll tell you all my dreams, Mom. I think you're the best."
Right around then Waldo's mother called.
"I've just been reading about this hapless person w ho was mauled by his very own pet tiger. Really gruesome stuff."
"I think I missed this one, Posey," I said.
"I am so very, very pleased that you and Waldo have dogs. Dogs would never do anything like that."
"Well, actually—"
"Naturally I'm not referring to the Diebenkorns or the Rottenweiners. People like us don't have dogs like that," she said.
I tried again. "I don't think it's quite that simple—"
"I'm only saying it's a matter of what we're used to. And we're used to friendly dogs. Dogs you can sleep with in a pinch."
It was a family truism that Posey Fairweather, née Pinchbeck, frequently did not know how she sounded.She Doesn't Know How She Sounds,one of us would mouth to strangers at weddings or on train platforms.She Doesn't Know What That Means.
On the other side of the kitchen, Flirt and Dandy were curled up together on their plaid cushion, Dandy's slender nose resting on his sister's back, their breathing in unison, their aspect benign. They were taking a break, appa rently, from their mutual inspection and licking of each other's genitals.
Posey had a point; she often did. That was the scary thing.
"This poor fellow had gotten this tiger as a baby, but it grew too large, as tigers are prone to do, and so he kept it in the next-door apa rtment, and each day opened the door just enough to toss in a few raw chickens. Jus t this once the tiger pushed the door wide open and mauled him. I've always said cats were untrustworthy."
"Would you like to speak with Waldo? He's right here." I handed the phone over, but Henry intercepted it.
Now the rest of us could go back to whatever we were doing—castigating WBLT for their shortsighted employment policies and wonderin g what would happen to all the dreamers of our metropolitan region who were not blessed, as I was, with Waldo and the boys, who each morning gave the impression of g enuine interest when I said over my granola and blueberries: "I had the strangest dream last night."
Now, however, Posey would find out that I had been fired, and I really didn't want her to know that just yet. I didn't want to talk about it with someone who thought I'd been wasting my talents all along. But just what were th ose talents, anyway?
How often in life does one have the perfect job? We ll, I had. I'd had it and I'd lost it.
About a month after that I started eating meat again, not very much and not very often, but somewhere in there was a palpable shift from th e vegetable world to the world of flesh.
Waldo got paid to think of new and better ways to d o the same old things, as well as of ways to do the things that were not generally considered possible. He got paid to tinker around with tools and tubes and hoses and grommets and items I could never name. Whenever forms required you to write in your occupa tion, Waldo got to writeinventor. He worked for the research and development departme nt of DSG Corporation, so called because their first successful product was a device that removed dust particles from the air in manufacturing plants, a device that was called the Dust-Sucking Gizmo, or DSG. He'd first worked for them in the city, but as they expanded, they moved the R & D department up the Hudson to Thumbtown, at which p oint we too moved and bought our house in VerGroot, two towns over. Dust sucking was naturally something of a specialty at DSG, and Waldo's first commercially su ccessful invention was the Automatic Auto-Suction Friend. People with allergie s loved Waldo. He was occasionally invited to speak at the Allergens of America annual conference, which was always held in May because that was National Allergy Prevention Month. Since I rarely went to the allergy conference, I never knew if Waldo shared hi s brilliant limericks with his sneezing audience, rhymingpollenwithswollenand rhyming who knows what else, dander, philander, slander,andoleander.I assumed he did because of course that would only increase his desirability as a speaker.
Two months before the WBLT debacle, I had lost my o ther part-time job, teaching high