Our Lady of Divine Hawaiian Sweet Rolls by Shayne Terry
So much is contained in the space of the opening paragraph of Shayne Terry’s short story “Our Lady of Divine Hawaiian Sweet Rolls,” from strong voice to characterization to critical backstory. And yet Terry makes clear there will be no tricks here: she places us eye level with the emotional landscape inhabited by the story’s central character, Francine. What follows is character-driven realism at its best—unforced and emotionally uncompromising. There’s such a strong sense of compatibility to the working elements here, with pacing and narrative time and sensory detail propelling this piece and its pivotal mystery (see Terry’s author’s note for more on this). Francine is at the core of how this story moves: how she sees things, hears things, processes, reacts, ignores, rationalizes. If balancing interiority and scene looks easy here, it’s because Terry made it look that way. Without even realizing it, you’re pulled into the emotional undertow that won’t let go, thinking about chance encounters, about the more practical functions of religion, about age, about lies of omission. Francine’s superstitious behavior—truly an effort at avoidance of grief—is smartly drawn, as are the ideas surrounding religion: “Francine wondered if Peter felt as ignored by Him as she did, if Peter suspected, as she did, that God was a big silence until it was time for the next tragedy to happen.” With this story’s unfolding is a catharsis you realize has been building since that opening paragraph, all along. —CRAFT
Francine always did her shopping on a Wednesday, which used to be her favorite day of the week. She was born on a Wednesday and first gave herself to Peter, emotionally and then physically, on two separate Wednesdays. Billy was born late on a Tuesday night. Francine had been determined to hang on until midnight, but the meds made her so woozy that, according to Peter, she repeated the same set of six numbers over and over for hours, to the point that one of the nurses went down to the gift shop and bought them all Powerball tickets and Francine lost the ability to concentrate on anything other than escaping where she was. She delivered a boy at 11:27 p.m. Seventeen years after that, Billy died on a Saturday around one in the morning, a time when drivers are more likely to be drunk.
It was a Wednesday when Francine decided to shop not at the nearby Kroger but at the wholesale grocery on the other side of town because Peter had picked up a pistachio habit and the wholesale grocery was advertising a deal on five-pound bags.
Francine was not accustomed to buying in bulk. She didn’t like having to make room in the cabinets for an oversized box of corn flakes or take up shelf space in the fridge with a jar of mustard too big to fit in the door caddy. She did not like owning enough toilet paper to see them through the year because it felt like tempting God. No, Francine liked to buy just enough to get to the next Wednesday, but pistachios were pricey and Peter ate them by the handful while watching TV. He took portions of pistachios to work, coming home with little baggies full of shells moist from sucking.
Even the carts were larger at the wholesale grocery. Francine tried to calibrate her steering style to the wide, unwieldy beast. She careened, narrowly avoiding a pyramid of canned sweet peas. She imagined the cans crashing down, a shower of metal on the industrial tile.
“Fancy!” someone called.
Francine felt embarrassed by the thought of the disorganized cans rolling in every direction.
“Fancy, is that you?”
Francine turned. A man stood holding a melon with both hands, as if about to shoot a free throw. His white hair fell in his eyes and he placed the melon back on a towering pile in order to push the wavy lock out of his face.
“I knew it was,” he said, coming closer. “It’s been—what? Thirty-five years?”
Francine could smell the overripe melons. Most of them would rot within a day or two. The melon the man had been holding had small, soft dents where his fingertips had touched it. He wore a sweater vest over a dress shirt, the top two buttons of which hung open, devil-may-care. She reached her hand into the child’s seat of her cart and touched her purse. “Do I know you?”
“Ernie.” The man put both hands on his chest. “Father Ernest.”
Father Ernest. It was familiar not in the way names of friends and family are but in the way that institutions from one’s childhood are memorized as combinations of words, separate from individual meaning. First Amalgamated Bank. American Broadcasting Company. Salvation Army. Father Ernest. She had encountered many priests in her lifetime. There was her current priest, Father Tony, and the one before him, Father Sean. But Father Ernest was the first, back when she thought there would be one Father Ernest for her whole life and all her confessions, a sort of platonic priest.
“I might look a bit different,” Father Ernest said, and laughed. “I’ve put on a bit of weight.”
Francine found her manners. “Nonsense. You look just the same.”
“And I would recognize you anywhere. How are you, Fancy?”
No one had called her that since high school. She’d gone to college and become Francine. Peter used to call her Frannie, when he was being playful. “I’m well,” she said. “I don’t normally shop here.”
“You’re missing out. They have the best steaks in town.” Father Ernest looked around happily, as if the wholesale grocery were paradise. “Do yourself a favor and get the porterhouse.”
Francine realized she was still clutching her purse and released it. “And how are you, Father Ernest?”
“I guess you haven’t heard. I’m not in the clergy anymore, so call me Ernie.”
Francine wasn’t sure how to respond to this revelation. “I’m sorry to hear that,” she offered.
But Father Ernest seemed unbothered. “Don’t be. When they dismissed me, it gave me a chance to move here and start over. Bought a little house and I’m fixing it up. My best years are ahead of me, I’ll tell you that.”
It seemed an odd thing for a man who must be nearly seventy to say. Francine tried to imagine that her own best years might be ahead, but all she saw was the mountain of pistachios she’d be left with when Peter went. Francine thought about Peter’s death often, as a way to ward it off. It was a pagan superstition, the opposite of faith, but it comforted her.
“I had no idea you lived here, too,” Father Ernest said. “Small world.”
“Why,” Francine said, but then stopped herself. “Why, it really is.”
“It’s nice to see you, Fancy,” Father Ernest said. “Maybe I’ll run into you again.”
She watched him return to the melons. He picked one up and tested the flesh. She wheeled her cart away from the produce, as fast as she could without losing control.
“Steak.” Peter snuck up behind her at the grill and took a slice of yellow bell pepper.
Francine swatted him away with the grill tongs. “The price was good, so I thought why not? Father Ernest said they’re the best steaks in town.”
“That’s great.” Peter was already on his way back inside. She watched through the kitchen window as he rooted in the pantry and emerged with a cup of pistachios.
Peter didn’t go to confession anymore, but not for the same reason that Francine had stopped going. “I confess before God on my own two knees,” he said. “Cut out the middleman.”
To Francine, it seemed un-Catholic. You did what you were supposed to do, or you didn’t do what you were supposed to do and felt guilty about it. You didn’t get a third way. But Peter seemed content and he really did get down on his knees every night before bed. They still attended Mass together, but they spoke very little of God and sometimes Francine wondered if Peter felt as ignored by Him as she did, if Peter suspected, as she did, that God was a big silence until it was time for the next tragedy to happen.
They ate on the porch and the steaks really were better than the ones from the Kroger. Juicier, and bigger, too. Francine normally limited her red meat because heart disease ran in her family, but before she knew it, she had eaten the whole thing.
The next Wednesday, Francine went back to the wholesale grocery. She looked for items she would buy in multiples at the Kroger anyhow. A big bag of spinach to replace two regular-sized ones. A flat of seltzer. She reasoned that if she bought only raspberries, rather than raspberries and blueberries and plums, she and Peter could manage an extra-large container in one week.
Francine looked around at the other shoppers. Plenty of white hair, but no Father Ernest. These were the people, mostly older, probably retired, who shopped in bulk at ten in the morning on a Wednesday. They might assume she was also retired, which was what she told people sometimes, and which was starting to make more sense now that she was fifty-five. It was easier than saying that she couldn’t hold down a job after Billy died and eventually stopped trying. She both loved and hated how easy Peter had made it for her to walk away from work. “I’ve got us covered,” he’d said, as if he could spread out over her like a protective blanket.
She missed the camaraderie of the office, the way she could so easily pull everyone into the conference room through the gravitational force of a frosted apple tart or a loaf of pumpkin bread. If she had actually retired, there would have been a party with a cake. The cake would have said, “Congratulations Francine.”
The wholesale grocery was a maze. In Gardening, trowels came in packs of three. In School Supplies, twin sets of staplers. An entire corner of the store was dedicated to plastic playground equipment. A sign hanging from the monkey bars said, “Buy Me on Layaway.” Francine pictured herself driving home, the yellow plastic slide strapped to the roof of her car.
Waiting to check out, Francine scanned the long line of registers. She wished she had asked Father Ernest why he was no longer a priest. They dismissed me. Who were they? What had he done? Embezzled money from the church? Perhaps he’d had an affair with a parishioner.
Father Ernest might be one of those priests. But she had read that those priests were rarely laicized; rather, they were shuffled from parish to parish, rewarded with fresh flocks, their shame kept secret. She remembered the other children in her catechism class, the altar boys in their robes. She remembered Billy taking his first communion when he was seven, how he cried afterward, saying, “I didn’t deserve it.” How she held him in her arms in the church parking lot and smoothed his hair and told him, “No one does. That’s the point.”
Peter made no comment about the two-pound blocks of cheese or the double loaves of bread. He did not seem to notice when Francine took to cooking large batches of chili and freezing portions for later, like she used to do when Billy was small and her workweeks busy. At first, she hoped he would ask so she could explain how she made the switch to save them money, but after a month of shopping at the wholesale grocery, she did the math and discovered that she’d actually spent more. She kept going back.
On the fifth Wednesday, she spotted Father Ernest. He was pulling out of the parking lot as she pulled in, sitting high above her in a shiny blue SUV. She waved up at him with more excitement than the encounter called for, but he did not see her. Embarrassed, she returned her hands to ten and two.
The next Wednesday, Francine went earlier. Sure enough, standing in the deli meats, examining a package of bacon the size of a piglet, was Father Ernest.
She bumped his cart casually and feigned surprise.
“Fancy!” he said. “There you are.”
Father Ernest wore an emerald-studded gold ring on his pinky finger. He was clean-shaven and smelled of bay rum, which made her think of the Christmas parties she used to host, her whole scattered family driving in from different parts of the Midwest to meet in the very center, all the adults getting tipsy on mulled wine while the children impatiently eyed their presents. Francine would spike orange halves with hundreds of whole cloves, the scent of spiced citrus on her hands all night. Now, she felt warm and happy, pushing her cart through the store in parallel with Father Ernest’s, standing behind him in the checkout line.
“Have you tried these?” he asked the cashier as she rang up a pack of twenty-four Hawaiian sweet rolls. The cashier shook her head and he offered her one, opening the package right there in the store. “I insist,” he said, and the cashier blushed and took a roll, promising that she would try it during her break. “They’re divine,” Father Ernest said. “And I would know.” He winked at Francine.
Father Ernest waited while Francine checked out, and for a moment she forgot she’d come to the store alone. They wheeled their carts out to the parking lot together, and he followed Francine to her car, where he broke off a sweet roll for each of them. Father Ernest ate with childlike joy, saying, “So soft. Like a pillow. A marshmallow made of bread.”
Francine laughed, but he was right. The sweet roll was sugary and buttery and disappeared too quickly, and when Father Ernest said, “I know a place that does drive-thru ice cream,” it sounded, like he promised, heavenly. They agreed to take their perishables home and meet back up that afternoon in the parking lot of the wholesale grocery.
Francine’s friend Linda had an affair, back when their boys were in high school. It lasted less than two years and involved a mess of tiny lies, some of which implicated Francine against her wishes. Linda told her husband, Carl, that she had joined the PTA and, when she returned late from her lover’s, regaled him with stories of the wacko parents and the unreasonable school board and how she and Francine stood up to them all.
Francine discovered that she was a character in Linda’s fictions when she and Peter ran into Linda and Carl at the Pancake House and Carl said to Francine, “I heard about your latest spat with the superintendent. You must be getting feistier with age.”
“Spat?” Peter looked at her.
Francine was mortified and Linda said, “She’s so modest. She works so hard for our kids.”
Later, Francine told Linda that she didn’t care if Linda cheated but to leave Francine out of it. The lies continued. Three months after Billy’s death, she saw Carl at the gas station. He left his gas pumping and walked over to her and gave her a long hug. He held her shoulders and looked in her eyes and said, “I think it’s really admirable that you keep showing up to these PTA meetings, Francine, but maybe give yourself a break.”
Francine began to see Father Ernest every Wednesday. Father Ernest never came over, and she never learned exactly where he lived. He took her to places she would not have considered going on her own, like the planetarium and the twenty-four-hour diner by the freeway where large groups of teenagers paid for their bottomless coffees with loose change.
And she felt like a teenager. They did things that Francine should have done in high school. They drove around in Father Ernest’s SUV, listening to the Doobie Brothers at a volume loud enough to sing along, and when red lights turned green, Father Ernest peeled out, laughing. They sat under the bleachers at the league sports center and smoked cigarettes. Cigarettes! Francine had never smoked before. She had been too concerned with hell.
Francine had not even been a teenager in this town. Billy had, and she felt some days like she might be retracing his steps, ordering the cheap burnt coffee he had drunk, driving the meandering, destinationless routes he and his friends had driven thirteen years before. Had he smoked cigarettes? She’d smelled smoke on his clothes once, but he’d claimed it was a stranger at a party. What had he and his friends been doing that night? Driving just to drive?
Father Ernest always dropped her off at her car in the parking lot of the wholesale grocery. Every time, he rolled down the window and called, “Next time, Fancy!” as he drove away.
“You choose today,” Father Ernest said. “Where to?”
Francine considered the movie theater, what it would be like to sit in the dark with Father Ernest’s shoulder so close to her head.
Instead, she directed him to the duck pond where she used to take Billy. They’d bring a bag of Wonder Bread for tearing into pieces and throwing into the water, and each piece would float like a white lily pad until a duck got it.
“The ducks are just visiting,” Billy would say. “In the winter, the ducks will be gone.”
Now, a black and white metal sign said DO NOT FEED THE DUCKS.
Francine and Father Ernest sat on a park bench and watched as a young woman finished winding a string of lights through the latticework on the gazebo in the middle of the pond. She flipped a switch and the lights turned on. She flipped it back and the lights turned off. As they watched, she began to place candles, the kind of tall, scentless white pillars that could be purchased by the case, in a formation on the ground.
“Mar,” Father Ernest read. He turned to Francine. “The sea?”
“Marr,” Francine said.
“Marry,” Father Ernest said. “Full of grace.”
A duck hopped onto the stone ledge and ecstatically shook the water off its feathers.
“Marry,” Francine said as the young woman placed the final pillar, “me.”
Father Ernest clapped his hands in delight for the young woman, for the lover who would encounter the lit candles and the twinkling lights at dusk.
“Did you think your life would be different?” Francine asked.
Father Ernest patted her hand. “I didn’t think my life would be anything at all.”
What Francine was doing with Father Ernest was not an affair, but she felt compelled to keep it from Peter. It wasn’t that he wouldn’t understand, although he wouldn’t. Francine told herself that Peter wouldn’t really care.
They were mostly lies of omission. When she told Peter about her day, she described the roast turkey sandwich she had for lunch but neglected to mention that she’d also made one for Father Ernest and that they’d eaten them side by side on a bench by the river, watching the motorboats cut paths of white foam in the rocky water. When Peter read her a newspaper headline about the six-story parking garage that had opened near the convention center, Francine didn’t tell him that she’d already been there, that she and Father Ernest had climbed the stairs to the roof and sat on a ledge and looked out at the downtown municipal buildings, that Father Ernest had taken a piece of paper from his satchel and folded it up into an airplane and sent it soaring for some county employee to find.
It was not an affair because they were not lovers. The idea of going to bed with Father Ernest was laughable. She could still picture him, fresh from seminary, playing an acoustic guitar to a group of kids in the church basement. He had been handsome, with his long sideburns, and certainly other girls had harbored romantic feelings, but some things in life are off limits. He would always be her priest.
And Peter was not the jealous type. The details of her Wednesdays with Father Ernest would only bore him, the way he was bored by the sameness of her other days. “Maybe you should get a cat,” Peter suggested from time to time. “To keep you company.”
“Zizia aurea.” Father Ernest paused before a tiny burst of yellow buds. “Golden Alexanders. Not to be confused with Yellow Meadow Parsnip.” He gently held the flowers between two fingers and bent his nose toward them.
They walked along an overgrown path in the forest preserve, the air made muggier by the dense thickets of prairie grasses on either side of them, the towering sunflowers with their broad faces. It was hot. Francine tied her cardigan around her waist and wiped the sweat from under the rim of her sunhat. She carried weight in her upper arms but felt miraculously unselfconscious around Father Ernest. His own socks pulled up high to protect against deer ticks, the pattern of green palm leaves on his pink polo. They could have been a couple of empty nesters on vacation, the kind of vacation that involved adventure hikes followed by extravagant, earned meals in hotel bars.
They came to a clear spring and Father Ernest knelt beside it, held his hand in the trickling water. Francine half-expected something mystical to happen, the kind of daily miracle that might be willed by the pure belief of the young. She sat on the ground beside him.
Father Ernest picked three long-stemmed dandelions and expertly braided them together. “There’s something I’ve been meaning to speak with you about, Fancy.” He joined the ends of the braid to make a crown.
The sun pulsed, bringing the water into focus and out of focus.
“I need to make a confession of sorts.” He placed the crown gently on her head.
The beating sun quickened. Francine did not want to hear a confession.
When Billy was in grade school, he used to unburden himself to her. He told her every time he was reprimanded by a teacher or cut in the lunch line or was cruel to another child. He told her when he had bad thoughts, even when the bad thoughts were about Peter and involved burning the house down with him inside it, even when the bad thoughts were about her. He told her when he used foul language and when he began lusting after the girls in his class, which was far earlier than she would have imagined. He never stopped the behavior that repulsed him. He only wanted her to hold his shame. “I don’t need to know,” she began to say to him. “I don’t want to know.”
“Fancy? Fancy, are you alright?”
Francine’s heart was going too fast. She needed to get out of the heat. Francine put her hand on Father Ernest’s and turned to face him. “I’m not feeling well at all.”
Eventually, Billy had begun to keep his secrets. At his funeral, a devastated girl wailed over his closed casket, made a spectacle by draping herself over it. She had to be pulled from the room, repeated over and over, “I’ll love you forever.”
I’ll love him forever, Francine thought. “Who was that?” she whispered to Linda.
Linda rubbed Francine’s back like Francine was a boxer knocked out in her final fight.
Billy had a girlfriend. Billy had probably smoked. Billy had been drinking, according to the toxicology report. Billy had been drunk.
“We just need to thank God it was a tree he hit and not another person,” Peter kept saying during those first weeks without him. “We should be thankful he was the only one in the car.” But Francine never felt the gratitude that seemed to come so easily to Peter, never felt relieved that Billy had dropped his three friends off at their homes, one after another. She could not tell Peter how sometimes she resented those boys for crawling into their warm beds to sleep off the alcohol, how she hated them for not being with Billy in his last moments. She could not say how she wished that one of them had died instead of her son.
Peter used to be a drinker. He referred to what happened to Billy as his wake-up call from God, as if whole people existed for the purpose of sending messages to other people. As if all she needed to do to be released from her grief was to assign some meaning to it and swap her wine coolers for pistachios.
“Better?” Father Ernest asked once they were sitting in the parking lot of the wholesale grocery.
The crown of dandelions rested in her lap on Francine’s open palms. “Much. It was the heat.”
Father Ernest nodded and gave her a moment of silence before he said, “Something on your mind?”
“I’m thinking of getting a cat.”
“You could do that,” he said in the nonjudgmental way that good priests have. It was a skill Father Tony lacked and the reason she’d stopped going to confession: she was sick of him laughing at the simplicity of her thoughts, the pettiness of her sins.
“I really would like to talk to you, Fancy. It’s important.”
Francine rolled down the window, thinking he might be stopped by the chance that some parking lot passerby might overhear. “I don’t need to know,” she said. “I don’t want to know.”
She didn’t look at Father Ernest’s face, only at his hand as he reached over to turn the air conditioning off.
“We all do bad things sometimes,” she said. “Even mortal sins can be forgiven. We all have bad things happen to us, too. It doesn’t say anything about where we came from, or where we’re going.” She finally turned and looked in his eyes. “Does it?”
What was the look he gave her? Pity?
“My child,” he said. Just like he used to when she was a girl, sitting across from him in the dark, telling him her secrets. Like just before he held the chalice up to her lips and gently tipped it. He opened the center console and offered her a travel pack of tissues.
Francine rarely cried and never wept, but now the tears flowed. Abundantly, she thought. An abundance of tears.
SHAYNE TERRY’s work has appeared in Catapult, Electric Literature, Vol. 1 Brooklyn, and elsewhere. Born and raised in northern Illinois, she now lives in Brooklyn. Find more of her fiction at shayneterry.com and follow her on Twitter and Instagram @shaynester.
Featured image by Akira Hojo courtesy of Unsplash