Till Death Do Us Part
David A. Stelzig
God, what a night. The pain, more excruciating every day, had stolen my sleep. And now, still prisoner in this white, all-too-bright, sterile room, I know it's morning only because Albert is sitting here reading his inane bible verses.
My incessant plea, my singular plea, for a month, maybe two: "Albert, God's sake, if you love me, let me go."
And his reply. "Dearest, my love is endless, but I'd be lost if I do as you ask."
And sometimes, "Lilith, I've given so much. But even now, ask anything. Anything but this. And I'll grant it willingly."
But my release is the only thing of value that Albert has to give.
To provide a distraction from my agony, to drown out Albert's monotone, I let my mind wander to happier times.
I first laid eyes on Albert the Sunday he was introduced to our parish. My immediate reaction was empathy. Seated as I was with the choir, I could clearly see that he had placed a small cloth handkerchief next to the tabernacle and several times during the service he used it to wipe the sweat beaded on his brow and running down his cheeks.
Since I was in my wheelchair, Albert brought the communion wafer to me. "Body of Christ."
We made eye contact as I responded, "amen." Albert blushed. I smiled.
On Sundays I was too sick to attend church, Albert started bringing the host to my apartment. Soon he was staying for brunch. Several Sundays, when our conversations went on for hours, we shared a bottle of merlot and a dish of pasta.
In the middle of July, my cramps were especially painful and Albert agreed to massage my legs. That was the first time he spent the night.
High school was lonely for Albert. He walked to Central Catholic, made no friends, joined no organizations, walked home, spent the evenings in front of TV with his grandmother.
Immediately after graduation, St. Joseph Seminary became a haven. He still didn't develop close friendships, but since there were no girls, much of the social pressure was removed.
Albert excelled in theology; frequently masturbated after supper, then cried himself to sleep; and graduated third in his class.
Other than his grandmother, Lilith was the first female with whom Albert spent more than five minutes in casual conversation. His soul seemed a small price to pay for the joy she provided.
Of course, at first they weren't really conversations. Nor were they casual. Lilith might have started with, "Father, you're kind to bring communion all the way out here." To which Albert could have responded, "Pleased to do it, Mrs. Winthrop." Or, "Father, the weather's so foul. You should've stayed inside today." And the reply, "Roads aren't as bad as they look. Was feeling cooped up in the rectory."
But within a few weeks, Lilith had them discussing the gospel of the day. And she started to draw Albert out with questions like, "Love your accent, father, but it's certainly not Minnesotan. Where'd you grow up?"
By Pentecost Sunday, the relationship had progressed to the stage that Lilith could comment, "Albert, you should be a piano player. You have such long lovely fingers," while holding his hand in one of hers and stroking it with the other.
It took Albert a little longer, but he too dropped the honorific, reddening only slightly when referring to his friend as Lilith.
That first Christmas, Lilith gave Albert a bottle of Old Spice after-shave. She squealed with delight when she opened her gift, a small silver cross on a twenty-inch chain, and insisted that Albert fasten it around her neck, then pulled him down and kissed him on his cheek.
On Good Friday, Albert closed his account at First Federal, using most of the money to buy a four-year old Plymouth sedan. Two days later, he left a note for Father Lorsung, who was celebrating noon mass, and drove to Lilith one last time.
By six that evening, the trunk and back seat of the Plymouth were crammed with their possessions, the gas tank had been filled, and they were out of Minnesota and half way across Wisconsin.
They settled in Romney, West Virginia, where they rented a small bungalow and Albert started as a minimum wage clerk in Braddock's Christian Bookstore. When they exchanged wedding vows in a simple ceremony in the Cumberland courthouse, few in Romney realized they'd been living together without the benefit of marriage.
And only the happy couple, and God of course, recognized the magnitude of the sin they had just committed.
Now, twenty years later, Albert laid his bible next to the flowers on the nightstand and made one final attempt to dissuade Lilith. "Darling, I beg you. Don't ask this of me."
But Lilith, her face pinched in pain, eyes brimming with tears, replied, "Albert, love, please, let me go."
And so, sighing, Albert leaned over, kissed Lilith on her lips, then reached up and shut off the machine.
Stelzig is a retired professor and Chairman of Agricultural Biochemistry at WV University. He has dozens of publications in refereed scientific journals, including Science, Plant Physioogy, and Phytochemistry. He has one story published in Boston Literary Magazine, one accepted by Midnight Showcase, and two accepted for an anthology of MD authors.