Dad buried Pastor Franklin in the field behind the chapel before the fall had time to settle into winter. The ground still sagged wet and soft in the yard and it didn’t take him much time to get Frank tucked into the world below. Mom called the local Rabbi from the kitchen telephone and asked him to lead the service seeing as Frank was the only Baptist leader in the town. He arrived late and near dark. His words were the same we’ve heard at all other services but were accented and strange to us. Half the town surrounded the small dirt mound, once an open nest for the newfound body, and said nothing at all. The world grew grey and ashen and allowed our minds to rest and forget.
I and the rest of the congregation thought Frank would make it at least till the first snow, but it seemed god or the angels thought otherwise. Someone had walked in on him dead one Sunday morning while the congregation waited for mass to begin. His body was sitting in the recliner, watching the morning news.
A week or two after the burial, once the ground settled, Dad put a concrete angel on top of his grave to have something escort Frank to heaven.
I stood by, watching him and other men struggle to place the angel down. I told him that I thought nothing made of concrete can go very far. He said he’d hoped to get Mrs. Jamison to carve it out of alabaster, but the church couldn’t swing the price. Concrete had to do.
I think the old folks in the congregation wanted Dad to go from organ player to pastor since he’d been around Frank the longest, but he couldn’t do it because he was too married to Mom, I guess. He’d shake off the requests with flattery but those asking never seemed to understand. A part of Mom knew that she was the only thing keeping Dad from taking the position, but he tried to talk her down, too. She would sit with the other women after mass had ended and lament. If only she didn’t have to. She tried to sit with them, far away so I couldn’t hear, but their voices carried, and I heard anyways.
“I know he wants more; I can hear it in his voice,” Mom said.
“Oh Helen, you don’t mean that. He needs you and the family. Just because he’s in here most of the week doesn’t mean he wants to run the whole thing.”
“He only talks about what could be better here, he has aspirations for it I think.”
“I’m sure they’re just daydreams, nothing more than wondering thoughts.”
Something had to be done about the church though. It seemed outdated in a town that had just begun to put up malls and pave over old grass fields for new suburbs. A year or two before, a Baptist church had sprung up on the North side of town with a spire that reached halfway to heaven and made half the town jealous of their closeness.
So, in November those would-be Baptist remodelers came and began construction on our church spire. The hope was to get it just a few inches taller, maybe a foot or two, just to secure our place in the world. Scaffolds stayed up for months and the crew worked constantly; sometimes drilling and sawing during mass. The new guy, Pastor Kirk, would politely look at Dad in his way, one that told him it was his job to quiet them. He would stand up from his bench and walk outside to yell them down. The whole congregation stayed quiet and listen close to the muffled talk as if it was some deep secret. They would lean to each other and whisper about how Dad had seemed more tightly wound since the burial or how no one had seemed him yell so loud before. Pity gossip.
Pastor Kirk wasn’t a real church pastor, just an old guy who, out of all of us, knew the Bible the best and was pretty new to retirement so he took up the position. No one complained. We got on just fine.
In that time, my purpose was singular and absolute. I kept by the front, sitting next to Mom, and let the word of god wash over me weekly and let it all drop down to the floor at my feet. There was a quality of it all that shocked me, and I couldn’t keep it together. I would sit uneasy in my chair and try and make games to pass the time. My favorite was knocking the pew kneeler down with one foot and trying to catch it with my other, right before it could slam down on the wood floor. I played it once during the beginning of Advent Masses and let the thing slip and bang onto the floor. Pastor Kirk kept on talking, unfazed and uncaring. Mom signed and put up the kneeler. That night she told me I had to go to Sunday school so I could learn to control my outbursts.
Sunday school started in the basement of the church but moved to Mrs. Launders house a half block away in late December. Pastor Kirk had listened to Mrs. Launder’s begging for weeks and announced the change in the ending notes of mass. Her house was bigger, and her husband thought it’d be better than the old basement teachers that taught us before. Now before mass began my mother walked me the way to the new house.
“I think it’ll be better. You can play with kids instead of waiting all morning for the service to end. What do you think?” She asked.
“I don’t get it. I like the service.” I said. She stopped and knelt down and looked at me in the eyes through my coat’s puffy hood.
“Just give it a go. If you hate it you can come back and sit next to me during mass, but for now give me a bit of trust.” I nodded my head and she hugged me tight, closing my arms close to my sides.
On the first day, we were lined up in a circle around Mrs. Launder’s coffee table in her living room. Boys with boys and girls with girls. I was pair with Sam, an older boy who wore a buzzcut and an oversized polo shirt. Sam met me and I met Sam and we quickly made on. We’d pretend to talk about god, but he’d always trail off with Mrs. Launder’s step away and began to share with me all those hidden things in town that I never knew of. I knew it all but listened just to hear him speak about it in his own way. Sam spoke in statements and not questions, but I told him the answers to questions I wanted him to ask.
“My Dad manages an office building downtown, wears a suit like they do in the big city.” Sam said.
“My Dad plays the organ for the hymns at mass.” I said.
“Your dad is the guy on the organ, like really?” He asked.
“Yeah, he has been since before I was around, I think.”
“What a dork, I wouldn’t be caught dead playing something so weird like an organ.”
“Why not?” I asked but he failed to answer, and I never could get up the courage to ask him again. That evening, when we were let out into the street, we walked to the edge of town where the roads lead to far off towns and fields. We played with downed powerlines near the edge of the highway. Chasing one another with the shocking end, threatening to kill till we fell down laughing. When the snow turned deep blue, we walked each other home.
Sam lived in the wide, flat, lonely part of town where the grass never sprouts green, only a languid faded yellow. Squat homes with chain-link fences all around. We walked through the crabgrass and slush yard and would stop at his front steps. He never let me inside. Said I wouldn’t like it one bit and at first, I took his word for it. I’d turn right around and walk myself home, but I began to linger. First at the sidewalk, then on his porch steps. I tried to peak through the crack in the door when he would slip inside, but I never could see far enough. I settled for daydreaming.
How much different could it be? I thought about my home. How the living room tv stayed on at all hours and illuminated all corners of the living room? How Mom loved the hourly news and sat close to the screen when it came on. She took it and remembered it, but never shared it. Maybe she feared it was too boring to share. Or maybe that she didn’t know where to start.
Our carpet had been eaten at in the years before we lived there and Dad had in his mind, and Mom’s, that he’d rip it up and lay down nice hardwood floors. He got around to measuring it all and buying the wood from a lumber yard. He leaned our new floor outside against the garage and spent the whole afternoon ripping and pulling apart the old carpet. He spent time teaching me how to grip the edges with my hand and rip it back but soon saw I couldn’t pull for shit and taught me how to throw away the scraps instead. Once the floor laid raw like an open wound, he said that we’d lay the hardwood in the morning and that he’d give me a shot or two at the nail gun. A hard rain came in the night and drenched the new lumber straight through and it warped. I saw Dad that morning through the window, watching the bowing planks weep puddles onto the driveway. He stood there for the morning, silent and staring, till Mom reminded him about the morning service. While he sat at the organ, Mom called over Mrs. Jamison’s boys to put in a new floor and it was done before Dad got home. He never said a word about it.
Dad was a man who swallowed cough drops when sick and could only settle down in complete silence. He didn’t like the chatter of retelling days and Mom caught on quick. For her sake, though, he still asked her questions and tried to listen. I think she’d answer only to make his efforts feel sane. They’d talk till dinner, then eat in silence, and, once the world got put back in its place, they would go to bed.
Some nights, Mom would speak up during dinner about the recent service and ask about the sermon. Dad would go off and explain the same bible stories to her and try to make sure she understood. Maybe he was forgetful, but Mom kept on, nodding like it was the first she ever heard of it. He tried to get her involved in teaching Sunday School with Mrs. Launders, but she would brush him off. I think he thought she needed something of her own that was uniquely his. Something he gave her that she could be grateful for. Or maybe he thought she just hadn’t done enough. There seemed to be a picture in his mind that Mom couldn’t get on without something more than the news and keeping house. There had to be some room for him and god.
But Mom kept on and kept her secrets. On weekend nights, she would drive Dad’s car. I don’t know where she went – probably past those wheat fields at the edge of town, down to the crack in the Earth where nothing good could grow. But she always came back before Dad could know and went on living like it was all natural. She tried to tell me one night about something she saw. She shook me awake and I turned to see her hair glowing like a halo from the hallway light.
“Have I ever taken you out of the town, way out far?” She asked.
“I worked on Mr. Nichol’s farm last summer, past the school.”
“I mean way out far past the farm, out and down to the lakes.”
“No, not unless I was really young.”
“I’ll take you there one day and I’ll show you how big the world is.”
She took me out the following night, shook me away again and we walked to the car. She drove slowly the whole time, let the road cradle us in any direction it wanted. I sat up to see out of the front window. I had never seen out of the front window till now, Mom used to say it wasn’t safe, that I was too young. Didn’t seem to matter to her now. I pointed out farm plots along the highway and she could only smile, not speak. After a while the lights on the side of the road grew farther apart and the land seemed to repeat itself, no matter how far we drove it looked like we were stuck in place. I watched Mom as she stared straight ahead and let the sound of wind on the windshield sing me to sleep.
I woke up in my bed like any other morning and I could swear I had dreamed it all.
Mom and Dad both knew about Sam and they liked having the chance to send me outside with a friend. In the weeks before Christmas they sent me out more and more to play with Sam. Always sure it was exactly what I wanted to do.
On a bright afternoon, Sam and I walked the main street to watch it all close up. He trotted on and I trembled. A regular pair. He liked to stand straight backed and tall to impress the girls, he told me.
“No one likes a short guy,” he told me, “Girls like guys like a whole head taller than them so they can fit under your chin.”
“Fit under your chin?”
“Yeah, yeah! I think it’s so like, when you hug em they can lay their head on your chest or something.”
“Huh,” I said and looked down at my own stature, “You think I’m tall enough for that?”
He laughed, “I don’t think height is your problem.”
I asked him what he meant but he failed to elaborate. We walked on and I tried standing taller, stiffening up, but couldn’t concentrate enough to keep it together.
I liked the shop windows and would always look in. When I saw a scene that glowed with radiance, I’d pat his shoulder and point, then together, we’d watch. It left us feeling like we knew a piece of the town that couldn’t be known. A private piece. I stopped at the pharmacy, crouched down, and looked deep into the window. I saw behind the counter were the pharmacist stood with his rows of pills. He wrote on a pad of paper and slipped pills in his pockets that he never took back out again. I turned to Sam and told him to look in.
“What’s in there, what’s in there?” He asked and I tried to point out the pharmacist, but he had gone.
“He was there, right there,” I said,” He kept putting pills and things in his pockets I swear. I think he was stealing them or something.”
“Sure, he was,” Sam said and kept on moving down the road, leaving me at the window. His preference and interest meant something to me. I never felt I had shown him enough. I pointed across the street to Miss Fisk who vacuum up pebbles off of the mat outside of her store. We waved. She waved with one hand and rocked the vacuum back and forth like a baby with the other.
“I bet she’s like starting to clock out mentally.” Sam said, “Vacuuming the sidewalk like that? She’s gotta be losing it.”
“She’s trying to keep her place clean.” I said.
“Nah, she’s like gone.”
I asked him about his mom and dad and what they were like. He turned and looked down at me with a force and said, “They’re like everyone else here, you know.”
“But what do they do, for fun and stuff?” I asked.
“I dunno. It’s not really important or nothing.” I wanted to push but he kept walking, each question made him move just a bit faster until I gave into the silence just to keep up. We walked over to the mall parking lot and kept our pace. Winter had kept us closer together for fear of the cold and I tried to stand shoulder to shoulder with him. I never could match though, he moved faster and stood taller. Something in his determination felt foreign to me and I forgot where we were going. I imagined it could be somewhere new and secret. I stayed back a bit, but he kept on like it was the same. The mall parking lot sat on the busiest road in the town and it ran both directions. Cars speeding down the road shook the ground and blew hard wind that took off my hat if I didn’t hold onto it. To Sam it was a place of great seeing and understanding. He took me to a lump in the asphalt and we sat. He’d point out cars he thought were cool and we’d guess how much they cost.
“My dad said his car cost a fortune,” Sam said, “but it’s not even as good as some of the ones going by.”
“What about that red one?” I said and pointed to a low riding two-seater.
“Oh yeah! That one must be hundreds of dollars. Like $600 at least.”
“You think it could be $1,000?”
“Only the nicest cars could cost a thousand or two.”
“Yeah, you’re probably right.”
The sun dipped low and we had to go. We got up from the lump and walked to the sidewalk, but Sam stopped right at the end near the road and I stopped next to him. We stood with winter coats on, hands in pockets, and watched the world go by. Each piece its own and we were no bigger than them.
I convinced him to try and sleep over at my house. I lead him up the drive to the front door but kept looking back. It never felt natural to lead. Inside he sat on the couch, awkward with shoulders up. I showed him my games, the old blocks and Legos I used to spend the afternoons playing with.
“You still play with these?” He asked.
“Well, I got them when I was little, but I still like them.” I said.
“Do you have anything cooler?”
I struggled to find anything and felt sick. He stared and I couldn’t bear the look. Mom came in and told us it was time for dinner. We ate in near silence save for Dad who directed all his attention toward Sam. He asked and he asked but got few answers. Dad wanted to know it all, like he didn’t already know everything from spending years with the church congregation. Sam answered that he didn’t know much, and soon the conversation slipped into silence. That silence stayed through the night as we slept side by side.
The next day he said that he was leaving, leaving, leaving and I didn’t have the sense to try and stop him. Perhaps I didn’t have the words for it all or knew he couldn’t stop it either. He said his mom had to go back to where her mom was and take care of her or something. Maybe she was too ill to be on her own. He said she lost it and felt bad that she did.
We stood on his front steps and he said goodbye. He didn’t wait for me to walk away, he just turned around and went inside. I looked again, through the crack in the door, tried to feel what it was all about, but nothing seemed to come from it. Just a looking that couldn’t be satisfied.
Mom ran out of patience by then, or never had it at all. She couldn’t stand it all and during one of Dad’s gospel-like rants she stood up and walked out the door. Dad looked over stunned and even as he heard the sound of his car start and drive off into the night, he couldn’t bring himself to do anything but watch. I laid awake thinking she’d come back in the middle of the night, but she never did. In the morning I walked down and saw Dad awake looking at our tv whispering, “She’ll surely come back.”
Dad walked to work now, and I went with him. He kept his mouth shut up and his eyes at his feet. The early Spring made puddles from snow and got his leather shoes wet but he didn’t move out of their way. I asked him where he thought Mom went and he told me to her sister’s probably, but I knew he wasn’t sure. He said not to worry though, she’d be back in a day or two.
He spent nights on the phone, calling Mom’s mom or her sisters. He yelled a lot on those calls, louder than I thought you could. He never stopped calling though.
Dad started to play the organ a little harder and yell at the builders a little louder. He thought the spire would never get finished.
“I could’ve used that money to bury Frank nicer and get him that angel he wanted.” He said to Pastor Kirk one day after mass.
“Now calm down James,” he said, “Frank had been talking about that spire for years, you know it and I know it. I don’t think any headstone would be more important than the beautification of the place he loved; don’t you think?”
Dad shook his head and walked out in a huff. He tried to keep away from the gossip after service now because he’d keep hearing Mom’s name. He saw her in every blind spot and every back of the mind.
I sat alone in the front now. Dad told me to sit in the spot that used to be Mom’s. I obeyed and Dad sat next to me. That day we watched a new man at the organ as he sweat in his high collared shirt and played with his eyes closed. Dad was told to take a break until his world calmed down. After hearing the first hymn play, he decided he would sit outside for the rest. Each time the first note struck he would get up from his seat and sit on the sidewalk outside until it was over. In those moments, I stood alone reciting the hymns from memory. The sound washed my body and I felt singular and outside of it all.
Sam and his family left after Sunday mass in April, some weeks after Dad stopped playing. They had decided to say goodbye to the whole congregation, and we all stood around them in the parking lot. Wind joined the daily chatter and kept us huddled closer together than we’d usually like. Dad and I shook their hands and said that we’d miss them lots. They returned the same gestures. Sam told me he would call me at home or send something my way. For a moment it felt hopeful, but I loomed and loomed and looked hard into his eyes and he stared back. I saw that he would never be back and that it was all just for show. I saw that he’d never call even if the thought crossed his mind. I saw more than I could accept. His head turned and he sighed deep and we stood together in silence. Then Dad came and patted me on the back, and I knew it was time to go.