"From the life that I've been livin'
Now freedom I've been givin'
And you're standin' in the shadow of a lady."
June Carter Cash
Maggie Mae Flowers stood on the corner, looking back in wonder at the small log cabin nestled in a grove of willows and the one huge cottonwood shading the cabin. Now the bright afternoon dimmed as the sun began its descent over Mt. Evans and the remaining late summer snow on the mountain turned a blood red.
A wan smile tugged at her lips as she wrapped her mind around the newness of the name Mt. Evans after years of knowing it as Mt. Rosa, or sometimes Mt. Rosalie. The Colorado legislature, somewhat embarrassed at having one of its most distinctive tourist attractions named after a well-known adulteress had recently renamed the distinctive peak after the former governor.
Looking back at the cabin, her sad eyes lingered on the lamp over the door. It was dark now, and the white candle that that been in place over the last ten hated years was missing. In a fit of pique she had thrown the candle into the nearby South Platte, forever removing the stain the flickering light had cast on her life when lit in the evenings.
As she lingered, she thought not of the shame and hardship of the last ten years at the small cabin but of the new life promised by the visits first of the priest from St. Mary's then by Sister Roberta from the Sisters of Loretto. The small bag in her hand was no encumbrance as she prepared for the several miles' walk to St. Mary's Church.
There were few things she had left of her earlier, happier life before her husband of five years was killed in a mining accident in Cripple Creek, leaving her alone and destitute. A worn picture of her husband, husky and plain, a simple man but good – strong but gentle. A locket with a tiny photograph of her mother ... clothes she had knitted with such love for the baby that died three days after birth. A plain and simple housedress, the gaudy clothes of her anguish burned in the fireplace of the simple log cabin.
Her ruminations were interrupted by the voice of the man, asking if she were free for the evening.
She looked at him, not a bad man, actually a kind gentleman, but a man that was from her loathed previous life. She turned away from his inquiry with tears in her eyes ... but the tears could not hide the shame she felt.
She turned back with a proud anger – the tears disregarded her voice shaky. "Sir, you think you know me but you don't. Please let me explain. I took the light down from my door and I don't work there anymore." She said this with a nod towards the now darkened cabin.
"From the life I've been livin' I've been given freedom. You're standin' in the shadow of a lady! So, Sir, don't say the things you think are true; that isn't me but someone else you knew."
The man froze, staring at her as she walked around him on her journey to a better life. She stopped and turned back, and added with a bitter voice, "Be careful what you say about me, Sir. You could be held for libel." With a small smile she continued, "Sir, do you know where I can find a bible?"
With a swish of her full skirt she turned and was gone in the night.
"And he wondered what had happened to his rare live pearl
Must have been another woman,
Must have been another world."
"The Shadow of a Lady"
John Goodnight stared at the retreating figure, now almost lost in the heavy evening shadows ... shaking his head in wonder. Embarrassed, he looked at the money in his hand and, feeling shame, he fumbled it back into his pocket. Running his fingers through his hair, he shook his head in wonder, "What had happened to his rare pearl that he had treasured more than he had let himself realize?"
Head hanging from the suddenness of what had happened with the woman he had known as Maggie Mae, he mused, "It must have been another woman ... another world."
He walked slowly over to his one-horse shay and, climbing in, he shook the reins and started back to his large, lonely house in Cherry Hills. His wife had died of consumption eight long years ago and his only child, Robert, was serving as an instructor at Texas A&M.
He had stayed true to the memory of his beloved Martha for several years but loneliness had lain as a heavy burden on his soul for a long time until a good friend told him about Maggie Mae.
"Yes, she is a fallen woman but she's not like the rest of them. Life was cruel to her and she took the only path left. She's different from the others. She is well educated, a fine conversationalist, all-in-all just a good woman in a bad life." He went on to tell him that if the light was on she was receiving visitors, but neglecting to tell him that it was never lit on Sundays.
He dithered for a few weeks, now yes, then no, before he gathered his courage one evening after a quick winter storm had left a couple of inches of white loveliness over the grimy streets. He pulled up at the corner nearest her house and parked his two-person carriage under the dim streetlight and walked down the dirt lane a few yards to her house.
All was dark; the candle was not lit over the door. There was a dim light seeping around the edges of the closed shutter over the one window in the front of the log cabin. Feeling overwhelmed by his need for contact with another person he timidly knocked at the door.
After a few silent minutes, she opened the door a bit, ready to chase the unwanted visitor away.
"I'm sorry, Sir, I don't see anyone on Sundays."
He stood there a brief moment, then with slouched shoulders he started to turn away. Hesitating, he turned back, stuttering, "It's just, well, Madam, my Martha has been dead for these years and I ... well, the loneliness weighs so heavily on me. I just wanted to talk to a woman. I'm sorry, I'll not bother you."
He turned and walked up the lane, his pain showing in his slow, stumbling walk.
"Just a minute, Sir. I ... well; I was just ready to eat dinner. I'm..." Hesitating, she continued, "Sir, I'm not open tonight but if you want to share my meager food you may."
That night started a slow, fumbling relationship between the two. He sat silently, at a loss for words. After a few quiet questions from her he talked of his life, his love for the lost Martha, the pride he had in his son and the large lonely house he lived in. Dinner was plain food but prepared well and coffee afterwards was better than his housekeeper usually prepared.
Afterwards, not knowihg what to do or say, he, with some hesitation, left some money on the small table near the door.
As he opened the door, Maggie Mae surprised herself, "Sir, if you would like you can come for dinner next Sunday."
The next week John brought a bag of food from his larder and made this a regular practice. He would come about two Sundays a month, having to travel some with his business. For three or four months, dinner and conversation was all that happened. Then one Sunday evening in the first warmth of spring, as John rose to go, Maggie took his arm and led him to her bed. Afterwards they held each other and cried for their lost loves and shared loneliness.
As he dressed to go, she whispered, "John, please don't leave any money."
But John had the money prepared as usual in a small envelope and he knew she needed it to get by on. She never said anything again and he was always discrete in leaving it.
This became the routine they followed on the Sundays he came and he never showed up on any other day. He knew she saw other men during the rest of the week but knew that if he ever saw one it would ruin things for him. The few hours he spent with her became a time-out-of-life for him. The very unreality of his relationship with her made the reality of his sad, lonely life bearable.
And that was the way it went for five years until that fateful evening on the corner where she gave him the message that ended his years of relative happiness. When he arrived home, for the first time in his life he opened a bottle of whiskey and went to bed drunk.
He had lost his "rare live pearl."
MAGGIE – A NEW START
During the half-hour it took to walk to St. Mary's Church, she thought about her run-in with John. After considering it she was disappointed in how she had handled it. If she had any friends at all it was he. She had come to enjoy his visits and not once had he insisted, or even asked for, sex with her. She knew how he treasured the few moments they had been able to spend together. She understood that he looked at the physical part of their relationship for the extended intimacy, the added dimension it gave to what they had shared.
She hated to take the money from him but she knew he had money and might have stopped coming if he couldn't leave a token of his caring. In his way he was a proud man and thrived on their time spent together. She was sure that he never would have asked for anything more than just their conversations, their sharing of a meal and even their moments of silence.
She was grimly committed to making her future work for her but what would it be like for John? Did she owe him anything? Would she miss the time she had spend with her Sunday friend. With a start she realized that John was the only man she had shared a meal with since her husband had died. Arriving at the church she resolved not to worry about anything but getting started on her new life.
She knocked on the door of the rectory when she arrived and there was a woman waiting for her. Her name was Hazel and she turned out to be the cook for the priests at the rectory. She took Maggie to the back of the building where there were two small bedrooms and a slightly larger common area, with several chairs, a sofa and a dining table with a couple of chairs. This was accessed through a door that opened off the kitchen.
"I'm in the bedroom to the right, the other one is yours. This area is for us to share and we can eat here. Father Gerald asked me to get you started and show you your duties. We both work six days a week with Sunday off. I do all the cooking and you do the cleaning. We also help each other as needed. For example sometimes the priests will have visitors over in the evenings. After a major celebration like Easter or Christmas the church is a mess and I'll help you with that. We also have ladies from the parish that volunteer to help us out.
"Don't worry, Dearie, you won't have any problems. Sister Roberta said it was okay for her to talk to me about the background so I know what you've been through. It's possible some man from your past might recognize you. If you have any problems just let me, any of the sisters or any of the priests know about it. I guarantee that no one from the parish staff will treat you any different than they do me. Do you have any questions?"
"No, I guess not. I'll need some clothes; I didn't have much to bring with me."
"We get a lot of stuff donated – I can help you with that. Now, can I interest you in a glass of milk and some fresh mincemeat pie?"
With a small laugh Maggie tried a smile and walked into the kitchen with Hazel.
For the next month Maggie was very busy. She had attended several different churches as a child but had never been baptized and knew nothing about the Catholic Church. The work wasn't that hard but there was so much about the church she didn't know and so many parishioners would stop and talk to her. Hazel had helped her find some simple but nice clothes that she enjoyed wearing ... in fact she enjoyed the simplicity of her new life. She was really too busy to feel lonely but some nights she would lie awake and think about John Goodnight.
She still felt guilty about the way she had left him and admitted a curiosity about him. She knew who he was and where he lived but she was afraid that he would misunderstand if she sought him out. Each day brought a new commitment to never be forced to live the life she had for ten years ... a life she hated and still felt unclean about.
Hazel several times talked to her about it, "Sometimes life is hard, Honey, and you do what you have to at times just to live." She went on to encourage her to talk to the priest and ask forgiveness.
Maggie had started going to mass each morning and on Sundays, in the hope she could better understand this church that had helped her change a life. Parts of it were in Latin but she enjoyed the formality of the rites, the songs that seemed to bring everyone together and the homilies.
After mass one Sunday she was walking up to the priest and saw John talking to him. Not wanting him to see her – though not sure why – she whirled and went out the side door. As she reached it she turned and saw John looking at her ... she froze a minute staring at him then rushed on to the rectory.
One morning as she was sweeping between the pews Monsignor O'Brien – a retired Irish priest that helped out with some of the masses – stopped and talked to her. They sat down on one of the pews and had their first of many discussions and began a good friendship that lasted until he died seven years later.
He talked to her of the church and got her to talk of her life. After several of these talks he asked her if she would like to start the process of being baptized and becoming a Catholic.
"Yes, Father, I think I would. I've found peace in my stay here and feel at home. I feel that God is calling me to do something – I know not what. But I feel if I can find happiness I can give some of that to others."
One morning in early October Father Gerald asked her to come to his office. "Maggie Mae, I dasn't think Hazel told you that one of your duties is to coordinate the decorations for preparing the church for Christmas and Easter, our two major celebrations of the year.
"It's not so much doing the work but working with the volunteers to make sure that everything gets done. You will probably find that sometimes you have too much help. Hazel has done this several times and she can give you help and suggestions. Are you okay with this?"
"I guess so, Father. I've never done anything like this before. There is so much that I don't know."
Two days later the priests invited Hazel and Maggie Mae to eat dinner with them. Afterwards Hazel appeared with a cake and they each gave her a small gift. The one she came to prize over the years was a leather bound bible from the Monsignor. As they finished Father Gerald gave her an envelope.
"Annie, our secretary, said a man left this for you."
She took the note to her room and noting the high quality of the stationery she read the message, beautifully written in ink with a fine script.
Dear Maggie Mae,
I saw you at the church a while back and Father Gerald said you were the new housekeeper. I hope your new life finds you happy and always with a smile on your face.
I hear that ladies supposedly don't know their age but I hope you have found peace in this, your thirty-sixth year.
I'm in good health but loneliness and time lie heavy on me. I find myself traveling more than I need to so that I can fill the days with being busy.
I miss our talks and pray that you are well.
As one of the Spanish gentlemen that I work with is fond of saying, Vaya con Dios ... go with God.
Several weeks after this, Farther Gerald asked her to meet with him in the morning at eight, at the rectory office. "I have one of our key volunteers coming in to meet with you. He is also a strong supporter of our church and has helped a number of poor families in need through the years. He contributes the Christmas tree and decorations each year. I think you will find him very helpful."
The next morning, Maggie made her way to the office. As she walked up she saw a familiar face on the man with the priest. The two turned to her and she gasped out, "John!"
JOHN – DAYS DARK AND LONELY
One night of getting drunk was enough for John; he knew he would never do that again. He could see himself falling downwards in a blind spiral that ended in nothingness.
He thought long and hard about Maggie Mae. He knew what she did on the other nights of the week but he had compartmentalized it ... buried it so deep in his psyche that these men seldom came up as something to worry about. He believed he was half in love with Maggie and had this fantasy that gradually became a plan ... he would marry her!
He had considered just trying to give her some money so she could change her life. He was certain though, from their many fireside discussions, that she was too proud to take that kind and magnitude of help.
So the fantasy of bringing her to his home as his wife began to grow. Many evenings he sat in his chair and daydreamed what it would be like to have a woman in the house again. There would be an end to his lonely life ... he could be happy again. There was really no need for him to take these business trips. He could hire an assistant and train him on the negotiations that took place.
And then ... that last night. He was happy for her being able to break away from the life he knew she hated. But he sensed from what she had said that she wanted no contact with any of her former lovers ... with him.
He traveled more on his business. It made him more money but he already had enough for any needs he might have. It did make him busier but he was just lonely in Omaha or Kansas City rather than in his house.
He had about given up on his dream of having her in his life until, after mass at St. Mary's one Sunday; he was talking with Father Gerald.
"So, John, are you going to do the Christmas tree again this year?"
"Yes, Father, it was Martha's favorite activity. It helps to keep her memory alive for me."
"Good, good. I'll have the new housekeeper work with you. Say, there she is now."
John turned and was amazed to see Maggie Mae going out the side door of the church, towards the rectory.
The priest continued, "I'll set up a meeting and introduce you to her."
John started coming to different masses and now and again saw Maggie, but never had a chance to talk to her. Finally, the meeting Father Gerald had set up took place. John was standing in front of the office with the priest when Maggie Mae walked up.
As she faced them, she gasped, "John!" and her face turned white.
Father Gerald was somewhat concerned, knowing what he did of Maggie's past life. "I guess you two know each other? Maggie, are you okay to meet with John Goodnight on the Christmas Decorations?"
"Father, I ... I do know John. He was a good friend to me – once." With a stronger voice, she continued, "Yes, it's fine that I work with John on the Christmas tree."