A Religious Experience
The following story was written in Winter 2015. It was published in Lebanon Valley College’s Green Blotter literary magazine in Spring 2016 (https://issuu.com/lebanonvalleycollege/docs/green_blotter_2016_final_forwebsite/1)
“When the sun has set, no candle can replace it.”
-George R.R. Martin
The priest approached the bar, a near empty glass of beer in his hand, and scanned the row for a proper bar stool at which to sit. He chose the stool next to mine and gave me a slight nod of the head as he pulled it out. We sat there in silence for a few minutes, until I decided to strike up a conversation.
“Isn’t that a bit un-priest-like?” I said, pointing to the few sips of beer settled at the bottom of his glass. He was a diminutive man, dressed crisply. His priest’s collar was neat; his pants finely pleated. It was his receding hair line that struck me the most.
He puffed a shot of air from his nose, a polite recognition of the joke I had made, and answered, “How are you?”
“Hell, I’m good, Father. You?”
“Doing well. Thank you.” The conversation trailed off, caught in the wisp of some bar patron’s cigarette smoke. I didn’t know quite how to talk to him. Nor did I know what to talk about. I thought about mentioning religion, but that would be too obvious. I began to wonder about him, about his life. Why was he drinking on a Wednesday night? I wondered if his wife kicked him out too. Then, I wondered if priests could have wives, or if he was a priest at all. Maybe he was a pastor. What is the difference between a pastor and a priest? I began to confuse myself, so I fell back on sports.
“Damn shame what they’re doing to the Eagles.”
“Fuckin’ take another quarterback in the first round, then sign Hackenberg for three million.”
“Oh, yes, the Eagles”
“I mean, Hackenberg’s as old as you and me!”
The priest just kind of looked at me and gave me a slight nod. Again, the conversation died out and we sat there in silence. I asked the bartender to bring me another glass of beer. He asked what kind and I told him it didn’t matter and it really didn’t. I would have ordered another beer for the priest, but I didn’t have the cash. I didn’t think my credit was any good here either.
The bartender brought me the beer. I sipped it and tried to remember why exactly I had started talking to the priest. I couldn’t. We sat there in silence for another minute or so. I couldn’t take it anymore.
“So, how’s Christianity treatin’ ya?”
He was giving me nothing to work with. “I don’t know, like, how’s your job?”
“Oh. It’s good.”
“Which church you work at?”
“Oh yeah, I heard of that. Off 33 right?” The priest nodded and looked down at his hands. I tried to pick the conversation back up, “I pass there almost every day. I noticed it’s been pretty deserted, lately.”
“Yes, not many come this time of year.”
“Yeah, I guess this is kind of your guys’ offseason, huh? That space between Easter and Christmas?”
“You could say that.”
“Yeah, I haven’t been to my church lately.” It was true. I hadn’t seen the inside of a church for three months. Last time was probably right before I started sleeping on my brother’s couch. “Been meaning to go, though.” That was true, too.
As I was saying that last bit, the priest reached into his pocket and pulled out his wallet. He flipped it open and peeled off a couple of bills and laid them on the counter. He nodded his head at me and said goodbye. And that was it. He left. I guess I won’t be going to his fucking church.
I looked down at my wrist and read the time: 6:06. The show was at 6:30. I quickly swallowed the last few gulps of my beer and threw five bucks down next to the empty glass. As I did this, I saw something glimmer in the light, standing out against the faded wood of the bar top. I stooped over to investigate.
It was a tiny crucifix, complete with a miniature, dead Jesus. I picked it up and let it slide into my palm. The priest must have left it there. I considered it for a moment more, shoved it down into my pocket, and rushed out of the bar.
Outside the school auditorium, I searched the crowd to see if she was among the bustling horde of proud parents. I slipped by a set of even-prouder grandparents to enter the auditorium. Everyone was carefully selecting their seats, clumping in their parental cliques and buzzing with feigned excitement to watch their kids butcher classical music. I found a seat as quickly as possible. Around me, couples oozed with public displays of love for their families.
The first part of the show was standard. The sixth-grade chorus struggled through a couple of foreign songs and the seventh grade band squeaked some truncated Gershwin. The conductor had to stop and restart the band twice because they had fucked the song up so badly. I couldn’t remember if my daughter was in sixth or seventh grade, but I knew she played the trumpet. There was no spotting her among the mass of uniformed kids and glinting instruments. I just hoped she was in sixth grade and not a part of that Gershwin debacle.
At intermission, I spotted my wife from across the auditorium. I hadn’t seen her for quite some time. Three months already. I didn’t want to talk to her and I didn’t think she wanted to talk to me, but I went over to her anyway.
“Oh.” Her voice seemed crawl back inside her. I think she may have flinched.
“How’ve you been?”
“Uh.” She shifted from her right foot to her left. “Well, okay.”
“Yeah?” Her eyes flitted in her head, searching for something else to settle on. They seemed to reject my image. For once, I had no words to fill the silence. “You sure do look good.” That came out wrong.
She furrowed her brow. The corners of her mouth turned down and she muttered hesitantly, “Thanks.”
I tried to recover, “I mean, you always do.”
“Yeah, I get it.”
“It’s just…I miss you.” I was not very convincing. Not because I didn’t miss her; I did. I just had trouble concealing the frustration in my voice. I always felt like I had to pull words out of her head.
Her coldness sunk into my chest; she had a way of restricting my breathing. I didn’t understand why she had to be like this. I was just trying to be polite. “Come on, hon. Please don’t be that way.”
My temper reached a boil and I spat, “You know what the fuck I mean.”
At this, her shoulders slid down her torso, and she exhaled as if she had finally shrugged off some great weight. Her eyes, which so many years ago blazed with brilliance, at last darkened, and they drifted to the stage. The house lights flickered in warning. I realized how useless this all was. Suddenly, I stopped regretting our constant arguments, our marriage, our hiatuses. Now, I only regretted having approached her. I regretted ruining her evening, ruining her life. I stuck my hands in my pockets and started for the exit. My middle finger brushed the crucifix and I began to walk faster. I thought of the church off 33.
It was a typical church, I guess. The ceilings were extremely high and I figured they wanted to try and reach Heaven but then remembered they had a tight budget. The walls were lined with a step-by-step re-telling of Christ’s crucifixion. A bit morbid for me. And directly ahead was an enormous sculpture of the world’s most iconic corpse, towering over every row of un-cushioned wood. Even more morbid yet.
I spotted the priest kneeling in the first pew and slid quietly into the pew behind him. He heard me and turned to see who I was. A look of genuine shock washed over his face and he smiled at me.
“This is a surprise.”
“A pleasant one, of course. What brings you here?”
I extended my hand to him, the crucifix lay in my palm. “You left this behind.”
“Ah. Are you sure it was me that left it?”
“Who else would it have been?”
He laughed silently, but warmly. He was one of those people who laughed with their eyes. He stood up and moved to my pew. As he did so, he picked up a tiny Bible from the end of the row. “Well, anyway, I’m very glad you came. I thought I recognized you in the bar. I see you there often when I stop in nights.”
I nodded my head solemnly. I had been in there a lot in the past three months. “What reason do you have to drink on a weeknight?”
“Well, I always kind of hope for something like this to happen.”
I didn’t follow. “What?”
He dismissed my confusion with a polite shake of his head. He scooped the crucifix from my palm, which still hung between us like a bridge too short to reach the other side. “Is this little thing the only reason you came in here?”
“I guess not.”
“I’ve…I’ve just been having a tough time lately.”
“Would you like to talk about it?”
I did want to talk about it. I hadn’t talked to anyone about it. Not even my brother. He cared; it’s just that he didn’t know how to talk about something as delicate as this. I figured the priest knew how.
“Yes.” Finally, my voice cracked and tears leaked out of my eyes. They trickled into the corners of my mouth; they tasted stale.
“There, there.” The priest put his hand on my back and offered me a tissue. It was all wrinkled up from being in his pocket. I wondered if the crucifix had been wrapped up inside it. I started to wonder if he left the crucifix on the bar on purpose.
For the next forty minutes I explained to him the entirety of my marital issues. And for forty more, he explained to me how Jesus could help me solve my issues. Jesus wanted me to try again with my wife. Jesus thought we could make it work, at least for our daughter’s sake. Jesus had faith in me, even if I hadn’t always had faith in him.
The priest read Bible quotes about marriage. Above all, love each other deeply, because love covers over a multitude of sins. Be completely humble and gentle; be patient, bearing with one another in love…make every effort to keep the unity of the spirit through the bond of peace. Therefore what God has joined together, let no one separate.
Over the course of his speech, I felt my heart rise within me. Each quote worked to lift the weight off my mind. I thanked the priest and headed out the church, remembering to cross myself with a bit of holy water on the way out. It felt just like average water, only it smelled funny. Today, I relished its old, musty smell.
I passed a man on the way out. He was about my age and I recognized something about him. Perhaps it was the helplessness I had felt just two hours before. But now I was a new man, and soon he would be too. I had faith in that.
Just before leaving, I thought to light one of the votive candles in the church’s atrium. I dropped a few coins in the collection jar and picked out a candle. I lit it and the flame whipped around in a crazed dance. I admired its beauty before heading out the door.
I got in my car and drove but decided not to turn down my brother’s street. I kept going a few more blocks and pulled up outside my house. I stepped out of the car and stood on the sidewalk, breathing deeply the night air, which was surprisingly cool for May. The house was dark except for my wife’s bedroom window. Its light reached through the darkness and touched my face.
I thought for a moment about our honeymoon. I didn’t want to go originally; I didn’t think we could get the money together. But she insisted, and I wanted so badly to please her. It wasn’t much, but we spent a weekend at the Jersey Shore. In those fleeting moments, we spent too much time thinking about the future, planning our lives. If only I knew then this was the future we were headed toward. I would have dug my toes into that sand a little deeper, swam a little further from shore; I would have let myself get lost in each moment, the way we used to when we were teenagers.
Now I stood in front of the house we used to share, so very far from the coast. I felt hopelessly landlocked. I wanted to burst into my house, wake my daughter up and tell my wife to get packing. I wanted to take them to the beach for the first time. I wanted to show my family I was a new man.
But I just stood there on the sidewalk, paralyzed. I felt more and more like the same old husband that was kicked out of his house, the same father who couldn’t remember his daughter’s age. I felt my rekindled faith slipping, retreating from the bleak reality before me. Before it slipped any further, I got in my car and drove back to the church. In my side mirror, I caught my wife’s bedroom light going out.
I entered the church quietly. I didn’t want to disturb the man and the priest. I heard the priest reading him Bible quotes about marriage. Above all, love each other deeply, because love covers over a multitude of sins. Be completely humble and gentle; be patient, bearing with one another in love…make every effort to keep the unity of the spirit through the bond of peace. Therefore what God has joined together, let no one separate.
Hearing them again, these ancient words had no effect on me. The priest lifted his head to look at me, and I smiled and waved to him. He nodded his head in return. I don’t think I could explain to him how much he helped me; I don’t think he would understand. I turned around, plugged my nose at that old, musty smell, and re-entered the atrium. As I opened the door to the outside, a strong rush of wind blew past me and put out every candle in the display.