The cabin, nestled in the Sangre de Cristo Mountains, is cozy, the fire crackling in the fireplace. I take a sip of my hot coffee, inhaling the view of the mountains through the window and the stillness around me, filled with peace. Now a widow, I’ve found I relish my solitude as much as I value my friendships. I recall those early days, when my friends and I found our way, stumbling into our destinies. My mind wanders back, way back to that day in the alleyway in Dalhart.
I inched down the dark alley, my breath shallow to avoid inhaling the smells of urine and tobacco. I made my way gingerly in the dark with the aid of light falling through a sheer curtain at the window on the third floor. It was 1953, and in that year I was still married to Jim, an elder at the First Baptist church in Dalhart, the heart of the Panhandle’s Bible Belt.
Jane had told me to go to the third door on the left. I passed two doors and, in a few more steps I saw the rusted metal plates on the third door; I paused, uncertain if this was the right place, uncertain I should be doing this. With pause followed by renewed resolve, I knocked firmly twice. After a moment the door cracked open. Jane smiled at me and opened the door wide to let me in.
Jane’s husband Henry was the pastor at the same church Jim and I attended. We would be shamed severely if the church folks discovered what we were up to. Sally Mae sat in the one overstuffed chair in the room, the faded green upholstery reeking of cigar smoke and sweat. Sally Mae was younger than Jane and I, but it was she who first said something to Jane about holy visions and mysticism. The daughter of a Colorado mountain man, Sally Mae had grown up on her pa’s tall tales. Jane’s interest had been piqued by the young woman’s questions; and Jane came to me and whispered about a topic that interested all three of us, the magic of the soul.
One morning over coffee, Jane had shared with me Sally Mae’s words: “ Don’t you wonder about the mysteries the preacher doesn’t talk about? About déjà vu and reincarnation? The ties that bind us to earth and the ones that free us? And what about the women? We know so much more than your husband alludes to in his sermons. Sorry, Jane, but we do.”
“She said that to you?” I was shocked she would be so bold.
“Yes, Shelby, she did. I was a little taken aback, but the more I thought about it, I knew she was right. Where are the women in the church?”
And that was when we decided to start our secret group. Tonight was our second meeting, and it was I who had gone to the library in Amarillo to get the books we needed. Though I was more skeptical of mysticism than the others, I was the only one who had my own car, a blue and white Chevy Bel-Air my husband had gifted me last year. Our first meeting was not in this god-forsaken place, but had been a coffee klatch in my kitchen, a suitable meeting early one morning that would not appear suspicious. Nevertheless, the three of us had whispered throughout that first discussion between sips of coffee and bites of homemade cinnamon coffee cake as we sat at the blue Formica table.
I knew I could trust my friend Jane with our secret, but I was less sure of Sally Mae. Sally was a tall and curvaceous girl, her eyes wide with optimism and auburn waves that fell to her cleavage. She had moved to Dalhart only two years ago in pursuit of the love of Willie Bob Preston, one of the more handsome members of our congregation. She had met him in Colorado Springs when he was visiting his married sister, and she followed him back to Dalhart where she found a job at the five and dime and a room to rent at Mrs. Baker’s boarding house. We all understood why she was smitten, but we were not certain Willie Bob felt the same way. The two of them were an item about town; but there was no sign of Mr. Preston settling down, and he was gone much of the time on the rodeo circuit. However, Sally Mae was tenacious and, we all believed, a bit naïve. Like Jane and me, she was filled with curiosity of the space between earth and heaven.
The books I had brought from the library in Amarillo were Mysticism: a Study in the Nature and Development of Man’s Spiritual Consciousness and Practical Mysticism. Evelyn Underhill had written the book on mysticism; and over the following months she would become a hero to us as we dared discuss topics such as reincarnation and the eeriness of deja vu. On this night, in this stark room normally used for illicit poker games, we gathered at the rickety table with our spiral pads and the books I had borrowed from the distant library. I had read much of the material at home when Jim was at work, so I took the lead in our discussion.
Over the next year we met discreetly one Thursday evening each month and discussed the mystic phenomena believed wicked by our repressive community. We began each meeting with a few minutes of meditation, a practice we found difficult in the beginning, but in search of a quiet mind, we would sometimes resort to prayer or the repetition of a familiar Bible verse. It was during our meeting in January when Jane shared a story of meeting a ghost one night as she wandered downstairs in her home before the Christmas holidays. She had seen nothing, but she described the goose bumps, the chill surrounding her as she walked through her living room, a chill that stopped her in her tracks. She recounted the delicate touch of fingers running lightly down her arm and then enfolding her hand with a gentle strength.
“I should have been terrified, but I was filled with a sense of comfort. It was all so unnatural to everything I understood, mysterious, but I felt as if I was with someone I knew or had known. I never placed who it might have been, but the tenderness I felt I will never forget.”
Sally Mae and I sat there just looking at Jane, our words held captive in our throats and our eyes large. We could not interpret it, understand it, but we all believed. As our meetings continued, as we meditated and shared concepts such as reincarnation and past lives, our daily lives went on in the ordinary fashion.
During those months I noticed my husband Jim was absent from home more than he was present, and I sensed we were drifting apart. I encouraged him to participate in the children’s school activities, but he was often absent, claiming he had work at the office or an overnight business trip. He missed all of Sue’s plays and most of Junior’s baseball games that year.
However, it was Sally Mae that had her heart broken. In August, the word around town was that Willie Bob proposed marriage to a young lady in Lubbock while he was down there for the rodeo at the Teachers’ College. That boy always had the luck of drawing the best bull. Word got back to Sally Mae long before Willie Bob returned to Dalhart. We spent an hour at September’s meeting sitting at the table in our alley hideaway, consoling Sally Mae amidst her sobbing.
“I don’t suppose meditating would help, would it, Sally Mae?” I asked.
“Oh, I could not empty my mind of any of this. No. No,” she answered.
“Well, sweetie,” said Jane, “I am certain God is closing this door for a good reason.”
With those words, Sally Mae went to sobbing again. There was no consoling her. Jane and I assured her that all would work out for the best, but she said the best was now behind her and she would likely be leaving town. However, as karma seldom fails, sweet Sally Mae met the nicest young man at the bus station when she went to purchase her ticket home. George belonged to the small parish in Dalhart, and after a short time proposed to our friend and convinced her to convert to Catholicism. He told her it was necessary for them to wed, so Sally Mae attended weekly meetings with the priest for several weeks before a small wedding was scheduled at the parish.
In October Jane and I sat in my kitchen over coffee and apple walnut muffins and discussed our group that had dwindled down to just the two of us. Where should we go from here?
“I wish I knew of others interested in meditation, enlightenment, but I don’t,” said Jane. “And I cannot go around asking questions.”
“Me neither. I don’t think we need to meet in that awful alley anymore, but we need to be careful, especially with the books I get from the library.” I filled our cups with fresh coffee. “You know, Jane, I think Jim is seeing another woman,” I whispered as if someone might overhear my words.
“He has been coming home late, very late, several nights every week, and yesterday I found the telltale lipstick stain inside his collar. Scarlet Red. Then I smelled his shirt and it was not my cologne.” I sat down and looked at my friend as if she had a way to rub out my despair. “Do you think I should confront him?”
“Well, I do not suspect you will get a straight answer.” She sipped her coffee. “You know divorce is frowned upon in the church. What would you do if he is cheating?”
“Sweetie, I would be frowned upon.”
My friend smiled.
We spent the balance of the morning discussing the mysticism in William James’ essays and The Varieties of Religious Experience. As we broached the topics of the unseen, my mind swirled with thoughts of conscious consequences about to come down upon my hubby.
In the turmoil of my divorce, amidst the town’s gossip of Jim’s infidelity with Josie, the shapely peroxide blonde who greeted customers at the garage where Jim took my car for repairs, the secret of “our club” was revealed. The talk of the town turned from Jim’s cheating to my brazen detour from the rigid rules of the church. I was now a wayward woman, and Jim resigned as the church elder. Though the judge had awarded our home to the children and me, the staring eyes of Dalhart held me prisoner in my hometown.
Who had revealed our secret? It had to be Sally Mae, now a young housewife with a bun in the oven. She had always been flighty and naïve. She was the outsider, now a Catholic.
When Jane showed up at my doorstep on that Thursday in February, bundled in her navy wool coat and a paisley headscarf, I saw her eyes were red and swollen.
“What’s wrong?” She started tearing as I fixed her some coffee and we sat at our usual meeting spot.
“Shelby, I cannot tell you how sorry I am. For what I’ve done.”
“What do you mean, Jane? What happened?”
“You don’t know?” She took the cup of coffee I handed her. “Jane, it was me. I was the one who told Henry about our group. He made me tell him what I knew about the meetings. Someone in the church, one of those old geezers who confessed to gambling at the poker games over there, told Henry about our meetings in their room in the alley, and Henry told Jim’s attorney. It was not until after he told the attorney that he discovered I was in the club. I am so sorry, Shelby,” her eyes wet with tears.
I sat shocked and disappointed in myself for instinctively suspecting Sally Mae. Our urges to understand more of the world around us had come crashing down on all of us.
“Henry would be furious if he knew I was here, but you are my friend, Shelby, my best friend. I don’t know how to help.” I assured Jane all would be okay in the end. Besides, that is what we’d told Sally Mae, and she’s doing just fine. I even suggested we meditate. With those words, she began to cry and, suddenly, she was laughing hysterically. I looked at her and, realizing the absurdity of the situation and my suggestion, began laughing with her. We laughed and cried, laughed some more, and finished our coffee.
“Jane, God is not in that clapboard building with the steeple down the street. He does not sit on those pine pews surrounded by stained glass listening to the ladies’ gossip in Bible class. God is bigger than that. You and I know it; we know He created a universe greater and filled with more wonder than we can even begin to understand. He is in you and in Sally Mae over in the parish confessional and, I hate to say it, even in Jim.”
Jane smiled. She reached for my hand. “You, Shelby, are the best friend one could ever have. And you know what? Henry be damned! I know you will always be with me.”
“Sure ‘nuff. Always,” I said, putting my hand over hers.
And that is what happened all those years ago in Dalhart, the God’s honest truth. Sally Mae stayed in Dalhart and, being a good Catholic girl, had four boys and two little girls before the GYN removed her lady parts. Henry was assigned to a church in Memphis, and Jane moved to Tennessee. And me? I sold the house in Dalhart just four months after laughing with Jane at that blue table, and I moved to Petaluma to stay with my sister. It was there I met Jack, a professor of physics … yes, physics … at Berkeley, and we were married for 31 years before he passed away last October. Jim married Josie the year after I moved to California, and she divorced him three years later. He still lives in Dalhart, in the old rundown boarding house where Sally Mae rented a room back in the old days.
Over all those years, Jane, Sally Mae and I found a way on three occasions to meet at Jack’s cabin in Truchas, New Mexico, where we talked and laughed, sipped wine, meditated and, in true native American tradition, sampled a bit of peyote on that last visit. Yes, it was still our veiled sisterhood, but we all knew, through all our trials and triumphs, we would be friends forever. Yes, the Lord willing and the creek don’t rise, forever.
© 2015 by Sandra Fox Murphy. All rights reserved.