by Elizabeth Kent
I step into the tiny chapel for a moment just to get out of the sun and catch my breath. Inside it is dark and blessedly cool. I kneel at the foot of the altar and offer up a prayer of thanks for the A-Team and for ridding us of the scourge of Salvador and his men. Above the altar, sunlight illuminates the small stained glass window that depicts Our Lady cradling the infant Jesus in the curve of her arm. A choir of stately angels hovers protectively over the pair. It's a beautiful window and always calms my soul. What draws my eye every time, though, and makes me smile, is the cloud of cherubs that frolic in the heavens above them all. They seem to chase each other about, oblivious to the miracle unfolding below them, caught up in their own joy. One cherub, though, has stopped in his play and is crouching, looking down as if peeking over the edge of heaven to see what's going on. In his mother's arms, the Holy Babe reaches one tiny hand toward that cherub. Does he wish he could be back in heaven, I wonder, playing with the other children instead of enjoying celebrity status on earth, serenaded by angels, worshipped by shepherds and wise men, and cherished by his mother? Is it any wonder he became a man who said, "Suffer the little children to come unto me?" The colors are bright and cheerful, from the royal blue of Mary's robe to the Holy Child's tiny yellow halo, which seems to glow with the light of heaven itself.
From outside the voices of our children slip through the cracks in the walls, their laughter and gleeful shrieks giving voice to the cherubs at play. It's the sound of my vocation, of my calling, caring for the children other women could not mother. Their happiness is my own happiness, as their grief is also mine. Both task and privilege, the daily grind of feeding, washing, educating, disciplining, and loving these homeless children gives my life meaning and value. They are not mine, and yet they are mine. I couldn't love them more if they had been my biological children, the result of the union between me and one very special man.
Would it have been so bad being Mrs. Templeton Peck? I ask myself that sometimes when I've had a particularly trying day. Templeton would have been successful at any career he chose and would have loved and cared for me till his dying day. He would have given his children all the opportunities he never had. I would have had beautiful clothes, a nice home, a handsome, attentive husband, all the things I could ever want. I might have been content with my lot in life. But happy? No. Not happy in the way I am happy here doing God's work. Not contented in the way I am when I walk through the children's dormitory at night and watch them sleep, soothing a nightmare here, retrieving a fallen teddy bear there, readjusting blankets and loving these lost children as much as if they were my own. These are, in their own special way, Our Lady's children, and caring for them fills up my heart in a way that no conventional life ever could. God called me to this, and who am I to turn away from that call even for a life of relative ease and luxury with a wonderful man like Templeton Peck?
The rustle of clothing in the quiet of the chapel tells me I am not alone. I turn and look toward the back of the room and see Mr. Murdock, Templeton's friend, sitting alone in the last pew. He smiles when he sees me, waves his baseball cap at me, but does not speak. He has an open, honest face, a quick smile, and a quirky sense of humor that is childlike and endearing. Yet he is no child. Not when he can wield fists and guns with such skill and with no apparent remorse. It shocked me to see that display of raw violence in these men, especially in my gentle Templeton, who in all the time I knew him never even raised his voice to anyone. Yet wasn't that exactly what I called them here for? To be the A-Team? To punish and drive out the men who terrorized us, ate the children's food and left them to go to bed hungry, and turned the house of God into a den of thieves? Wasn't that exactly what Mother Superior was speaking of when she talked about my militant view of peace? Perhaps I was too long in the secular world, for I cannot bring myself to regret my decision. It is safe here again for the children and for the sisters, and we can get back to feeding and educating the children, letting them out to run and play instead of hiding them away so their noise cannot incite an evil man to even greater violence.
I rise from the step and make my way to the back of the church. "Good afternoon, Mr. Murdock," I say. "Have you come to pray?"
He smiles and shakes his head. "I've come to hide from BA," he says. "He's still ranting about flying here and I want to be out of his way till he winds down." He pats the empty space beside him. "Please sit down."
I sit down, but neither of us seems to know what to say. For a few minutes we sit in silent contemplation, and then we hear Templeton's voice as he passes by outside. He seems to be dictating a list of supplies, and I wonder if it's little Sister Constance, our own supply clerk, bustling along beside him with her notebook in hand. "I've got a friend back in the States that will get you some help funding these upgrades," he says. "Don't worry about it. Just start collecting the materials as the funding comes in so it's all ready when the workmen show up." Templeton and BA have decided that most of our buildings won't withstand a major earthquake and have started planning to retrofit them. Evidently they are going to supervise the acquisition of materials from their Los Angeles base, and Father Lopez is going to take care of hiring workmen.
"Oh, my," Sister Constance says breathlessly, "oh, that would be so lovely. God provides, as we know, but sometimes, well, it seems orphaned children aren't always a government's top priority."
"Tell me about it," Templeton says wryly. Sister Constance takes him at his word and starts telling him about the trouble we had getting Christmas gifts for the children last year as the two of them move out of earshot.
"She'll talk his ear off," I say to Murdock.
Murdock smiles again. "He's used to it," he says.
I imagine he is. Even in college he was always surrounded by people. Popular and gregarious, he was the first one people thought of when they needed something, even if it was just to party. He was a part of everything, yet even when we were together, even when he was talking about marriage and children, he was always just the tiniest bit distant. It was like he carried his own little chunk of loneliness with him wherever he went so that even when he was a part of something, he was also apart from it. Most people wouldn't see it in him, I suppose, but I think I saw it because I carried my own little bit of loneliness with me. Even when I went to parties with Templeton, even when I sat in the local hangout with him and his friends, I could not quite be part of the group. In my heart, I always felt different...apart. That was what finally allowed me to make the break, that realization that there was a wall between us, albeit a thin one, that would never really allow us to connect as man and wife. Oh, we could be married, have children, and make it work. But I don't know that it would ever have brought real joy to either of us.
My calling has brought me joy and fulfillment. I knew from the moment I arrived that this was something I could feel a part of. But I wonder if Templeton has ever found that. Has he been surprised by joy, as I have been? I feel Murdock's eyes on me and raise my eyes to his face. His face shows only kindness and his compassion, as if he knows what I am feeling, and it brings me almost to the verge of tears, though I cannot say why. Maybe because I long for absolution for this, my greatest sin. I walked away from a man who loved me, at least as much as he could love anyone, I suppose, and who was willing to commit to me for life. How many times in the last fifteen years have I wished that I had done it differently? That I had had the courage to tell him to his face why I couldn't marry him. That I had been mature enough to cope with the disappointment in his beautiful eyes when I told him no. I doomed him to this life he leads now, to a life on the run, and have ruined his chance to find true love. How can I even ask for forgiveness for that?
"Is he happy?" I ask.
Murdock looks away at last, studying the window above the altar, perhaps finding in it the same peace and contentment I find. "Happy?" he says at last. "Not entirely, no. But who is?"
I sigh. I cannot help it. "I broke his heart," I say. "In trying not to hurt him, I hurt him anyway."
"Yes," Murdock agrees.
"All this is my fault," I continue.
Murdock shakes his head. "No, Sister," he says. "It's not all your fault. He doesn't blame you for any of what's happened to him since then."
"Then whose fault is it, Mr. Murdock?" I ask.
There is another silence as he appears to listen to some inner voice. Templeton told me not to be alarmed by that. "There are lots of people living in Murdock's head," he said. "And a couple of dogs. They're all nice."
"Does it have to be anybody's fault?" Murdock finally says. "You know, Faceman does this all the time, too. Things go wrong, it's his fault. It doesn't matter whether it was Hannibal's lousy through-the-front-door plan or BA's bad temper, or a swarm of killer cockroaches, he always blames himself. He can't accept that sometimes things happen the way they're supposed to happen and that if you just go with the flow, you'll be happier."
"Is that what you do?" I ask. "Go with the flow?"
He shrugs. "Well, yeah, but you have to remember, I'm insane. It's easier for me."
I laugh. The first time I've laughed in months.
"Face has ideals," Murdock continues. "As long as I've known him, he's had this vision of how the world should be, not just for him, but for everyone else. And it drives him crazy that he can't make it happen. He tries and he tries because that's what he does, but the world just keeps on spinning out of control because that's what it does."
"Does that bother you?" I ask.
"It bothers me when it hurts him," he says.
"It must hurt him a lot," I say.
Murdock nods. "This ain't the life any of us would've wished for, I guess," he says. "We got more MPs on our tail than a dog has fleas, and none of us has a place to call his own. But," he shrugs, "we got a string of happy customers behind us who know what we're really like, and we got an ace reporter tellin' our story in the paper. We do all right."
"You went with the flow?" I say.
"Well, got swept away by it's more like it," he says with a little laugh. "But it's a good feelin' kickin' some bad guy's a..., er...butt after he's stolen some old granny's life savings or driven a mom and pop store out of business. I guess I like to think of it as providing a little divine retribution."
"So you're saying you're doing God's work?"
He waggles his eyebrows. "Well, they do say the Lord works in mysterious ways, don't they?" he says.
"They surely do," I say.
"We do for people nobody else can do for," he says. "And Faceman understands that sometimes that kind of work calls for sacrifices."
"Sometimes I think his entire life has been a sacrifice," I say. "He's lost so much."
"True," Murdock says. "And by now you'd think he'd be bitter and hard, but he's not. He still believes in being one of the good guys, and he believes in people. And he's stronger than you may think. When I was..." he pauses, as if searching for words, "sick and lost after the war, he was my light. Does that make sense?" His voice is rough with emotion, and he twists the baseball cap in his hands. "When everything was darkest for me, he was the one little spark of goodness and hope that brought me through. He saved me, Sister."
I'm shocked, I think. What he's describing sounds like a religious experience, and I can see in his eyes and hear in his voice that it's about the most significant thing that has ever happened to him. What is so special, so transcendent, about this friendship? What have they both suffered, together and separately, that connects them like this? I experience a flash of jealousy. Templeton loved me, I want to say. Me! How can you be closer to him than I was? But these thoughts are unworthy, I know, and I repent as soon as I think them.
"And if you hadn't let him go," he continues gently, "he couldn't have been there to save me. Sometimes, in spite of our best efforts to screw things up, the universe does the right thing after all."
The door behind us opens, and I hear footsteps, quick and sure. My heart beats faster, for I recognize those footfalls even after all these years. So, I see, does Murdock, for his eyes leave my face and fix on Templeton as he strides toward the front. Templeton fails to see us since his eyes have not fully adjusted to the dark of the interior. He goes to the front of the church, genuflects, and crosses himself. Then he pulls out a tape measure and begins to measure the dimensions of the altar, though I am not sure what for.
Murdock shifts his weight, and the old pew underneath us creaks. Templeton whips around, looks in our direction, and smiles. No, he beams. I see a look on his face that I've never seen before, a welcoming, open look. I see joy. I see love. My treacherous heart lurches within me. What if he asks me to leave with him? Could I say no this time? If he looked at me with such love and such joy every day, I could never leave him.
And then it dawns on me. He isn't looking at me. I'm not sure he even sees me. His eyes are on Murdock. And Murdock's are on him. For this brief moment, nothing else exists for them. I can sense this connection, this communion they create for each other. Between them there are no walls. There is no loneliness. In Murdock, Templeton has found what I could not give him.
They are lovers. I am sure of it. No wonder, I think. No wonder he was never fully mine. No wonder he was lonely. I should be shocked, I suppose. I should disapprove. Their relationship goes against everything the Church teaches us. Why, then, does it feel so right? Why does my own heart leap for joy to know that Templeton has found someone who completes him?
"BA's looking for you," Templeton says.
"I'm claiming sanctuary," Murdock says.
"You can tell him that when he's got his hands around your neck."
"I'm on my way." Murdock stands up. I stand, too, and Templeton finally sees me. He smiles gently at me, then, and I feel fifteen years of guilt lift. He is happy now, and he finds fulfillment in his work, as I do in mine. He is complete, and he is loved. I am so glad for him, so very glad. We will part friends, and though I will carry a small piece of him in my heart always, I will rest easy knowing that true love has found him at last. In spite of what I did, or maybe because of what I did, if Murdock's theory is correct, Templeton Peck is neither alone, nor lonely. In such a world as ours, that is truly a gift from God.
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