A Balm in Gilead

Martha told everyone that she just wanted him to come back. She would do anything if Jack would just come back. She told her friends, her aunt, her therapist, her pastor, and God. The conversations (with everyone but God) went something like this:

“If Jack would just come back and give me a chance, everything would be fine. He’s just besotted with that woman. He’s going to be sorry. I know he is. I will forgive everything. We’ll never talk about it. I’ll work hard at it.” Martha would be crying, twisting her wedding ring around her finger as if it would work magic if she only rubbed it in the right way, and bouncing her feet back and forth from her heels to her toes.

“Do you really want back a man who wants to be with another woman?” her friend or pastor or therapist would ask.

“Yes, yes, I do. I’ll make everything good so he’ll forget about her.” This would be followed by a list of little things that used to aggravate Jack which Martha vigorously asserted she wouldn’t do anymore. The listener often doubted that it was anything on the list (like forgetting to go to the bank and forever dipping into her husband’s wallet) which would have driven Jack into the arms of another woman, and could only assume that Martha’s list was somehow incomplete. Her interlocutor would try again:

“But it doesn’t seem like this is about you. Apparently he has dreamed of a new life with this lady.”

“He hardly knows her,” Martha would respond. This was not quite true; the woman whom Jack was leaving her for – Trudy – had been the love of Jack’s life in college, over forty years ago. She had married another man and that other man had recently died. Apparently she was finally ready for Jack. How long Jack and Trudy had been in communication was not clear. Other than seeing her pictures in some of Jack’s mother’s old holiday photos, Martha hardly knew who Trudy was when Jack made his announcement. Jack had seemed surprised by this.

Martha made other arguments. The house would have to be sold, the retirement accounts split equitably, and the holidays with the kids divvied up. None of these complications – reiterated in gruesome detail by Martha – made any impression on Jack. In fact, many of his friends noted that he had never looked calmer or been more fun to be around. Martha, on the other hand, was no fun to be around.

Her therapist and pastor both suggested that Martha join some sort of support group. Martha joined a prayer circle at church and then begged them all to pray that Jack would come to his senses and return. Silently, most of them just prayed that this sister would find peace.

Despite the fact that Jack had packed up and moved into Trudy’s condo on the coast, Martha had done nothing. She had contacted neither a lawyer nor a realtor. She had not started to pack up the house. She was shocked after a couple of weeks when Jack told her to get a new credit card and bank account, as he would be closing down the old ones. People told her that she had to begin to move on – to straighten out her finances, find a lawyer and a place to live, make plans.

“It’s a new start, Martha. You can live anywhere you like and decorate your place the way you want it. You can travel.”

“There won’t be enough money to travel. We didn’t have enough money to support two life styles like we had. I’ll be in an apartment – and what if I sell the house and Jack wants to come back?”

Helpful friends tried to get Martha to accept the facts. Unhelpful friends tried to persuade her that if she set herself up as a swinging single she might be more attractive to Jack. Her children told her that most of their friends had divorced parents and that they had met Trudy and she wasn’t so bad. The truth was that both of the children were in their second marriages. When their first marriages were breaking up (one after a year and one after a miserable decade), their mother had continually counseled reconciliation, while their father offered nothing but sympathy – which they now realized might have been compassion.

Martha had googled Trudy, of course, and haunted her Facebook page. While Trudy was Jack’s age – a good four years older than Martha – she did, indeed, look great. Trudy had even posted pictures of herself windsurfing, which Martha thought was a little ridiculous.

Martha continued to plead and pray and emote, but none of it made any difference. Her therapist asked her to think about her new life, but she responded that she could only think about the old one. And yet, questions about her old life haunted Martha. Had Jack been fantasizing about Trudy all those years? When he was visiting museums with Martha, was he wishing he was windsurfing with Trudy?

Martha and Jack had been married for forty-one years. They had married when Martha was finishing a degree in art history and Jack was completing an MBA. Jack went on to work for the same bank for the rest of his working life. Martha raised their two kids – now in their forties and each with one child of their own – and then found a part-time job (which eventually morphed into full-time employment) in the local historical museum. They had done well financially, but it had taken them a decade to recover from sending the kids to college and, when they moved to their retirement home, it was in a modest community adjoining a golf course for Jack and with a mah-jongg group for Martha. At no time had there been any clue that Jack was considering leaving Martha or even thinking about other women. But Jack was a quiet guy and Martha was not a woman of much reflection.

In any case, none of it helped. Martha lost weight, developed shakiness in her hands, and was dangerously close to being addicted to sleeping medications. It was all exacerbated by the fact that the holidays were approaching. The only place where Martha found any relief was in playing old hymns on the piano, and she was playing “There is a Balm in Gilead” – passionately and badly – when the doorbell rang in the early twilight of a stark and cold November evening.

“Excuse me, Mrs. Winthrop,” said the funny little man at the door. He was no more than five feet tall and completely enveloped in a trench coat that was at least six sizes too large and which had a filthy hem where it dragged on the ground.

“Excuse me, Mrs. Winthrop,” the leprechaun of a man repeated. “I have something here that I think you have been looking for.”

Martha shook her head and started to close the door. “I haven’t ordered anything…”
The man’s little foot stopped the door as he held up a legal document stapled to a blue backing. Martha pushed the door harder, thinking it was some kind of divorce papers, but the man read her mind.

“Not divorce, not separation documents, but just the opposite, my lady. Sign this contract and Mr. Jack Winthrop will present himself with his luggage before Thanksgiving to spend the next two years with you.” This was enough to get the door open.

Martha stared at the document as she asked, “Who are you? Who sent you?” The little man ignored her questions, but handed Martha the papers.

“Read carefully,” he cautioned, wagging a stubby finger at her. “He’ll come back for two years and no one will interfere, but if at the end, he wants to go, you have to let him. No crying. No complaining – to him or anyone else. And if you do, we’ll make sure that you go through this all over again. And again and again. And your children will never speak to you again.”

Martha was not sure what the “again and again” part meant, but she was so fixated on the promised two year reprieve that she looked positively joyful.

“Is this a joke?” she asked. “Did Jack send you to torment me?”

“Your husband’s not like that, is he? No, Jack doesn’t know anything about this. If he comes back it will just be because all of a sudden he feels compelled to.” Martha considered this for almost a full minute.

“Are you the devil? Is this a bargain with the devil?”

“Well, let me just say that I know you’ve been praying to God. This is not God answering your prayers, if that is what you want to know. If God has to bless this, I’ll just take it back…” the little man put his stubby fingers on the document that Martha was clutching and she pulled away.

“No. No. I’m not too happy about God these days, but I don’t want to make things worse.”
The little man smiled and put his hands in his capacious pockets. “There is nothing mischievous about this. In fact, keep the document and look it over for a couple of days. I’ll come back. I will need to bring someone to witness your signature anyway.” His left eye winked at her in an almost lewd way. “You’ll love the witness.”

He opened the door and then spun around on his little feet, pulled up all of his four and a half feet, and added, “But don’t show it to anyone or I will never return. Ever. And neither will Jack.”

The little man left, shutting the door forcefully behind him. When Martha came to her senses a few minutes later, she looked out but couldn’t see him or a vehicle or any evidence he had been there other than the paper in her hand.

Martha read the document and put it in the center of the dining room table, moving the candles to either side. She backed up and stood on the threshold and pondered. What would it hurt? Even if the tiny man in the trench coat was the devil, he wasn’t asking for her soul – he was just asking for her to agree to give it all up without a whimper after two years if Jack hadn’t changed his mind. Would he change his mind? Could she make him forget about Trudy? Did she really want to spend two years worrying that Jack would rather be windsurfing? Martha stood there for a very long time and then realized that she was very hungry. She went into the kitchen to make a list and then headed to the grocery store.

When Martha came home she filled her cabinets with all the foods she loved and never bought – Raisinets and mangos and lovely boxes of granola and bottles of imported mineral water. To make room, she threw out Jack’s bran cereal and Wasa crackers – which were probably stale anyway as he had been gone for months. Then she poured herself a little bowl of chocolate-covered raisins, opened a beautiful blue bottle of mineral water, and put the Sound of Music on the DVD player. Sometime before Maria married the Baron Von Trapp, Martha was asleep on the couch and she slept right through until morning.

Martha was fine after that. She tried to take a photo of the mysterious contract with her phone before she burned it, but the photos were mysteriously blurry and her scanner didn’t pick it up at all. So she just put it into the gas fireplace where it burned with a bright green flame. For a week, she did not answer the doorbell. Martha never told anyone about the little man’s visit; she knew they would think she had gone over the edge. But she believed in his offer and that she had a choice – which seemed to make a difference. Or maybe the time had just come.

In any case, she did recover. Jack married Trudy and died of a heart attack three years later. And when Martha heard of Jack’s demise, she was very sorry.