SHORT STORY- First Church
A gun fits well in a big blazer pocket when kneeling to pray.
The damp chill of the red clay seeps to my knees through the grass and the thin polyester/rayon dress pants I buy for $19.99 at J.C. Penney every other year or so. Little damp splotches of moisture will show on my knees, if I rise.
I know the image I cut here in the quiet of the night, kneeling as I am before the small church sign in the little front lawn announcing the time of our Sunday service and yours truly, the Rev. Andrew Mitchell, as the pastor. I look pious. My head is bowed. My eyes are closed. I'm dressed in my cheap black pants and my cheap black blazer with the big pockets (Sears, $59.99, five years ago, now a bit too small to button around my late middle-aged belly) and my cheap black shoes ($24.99 from Wal-Mart, new this year). I look every bit the small-town pastor, perhaps praying for the church itself, perhaps praying for an ill church member. I don't brush back my hair when the breeze pushes it onto my forehead, where it sticks to the beading sweat, showing focus and concentration on prayer for the benefit of any witnesses, though I see none.
What a lie. I haven't been able to pray for a month. Not since the men in uniforms came to tell me my son is dead.
Five miles away, outside of town, in the parsonage wedged in the back corner of a small farm, the early springtime evening cool is mixing with the smell of rural Virginia bursting into life. The peepers were peeping when I left it a half hour ago, bouncing along the rutted gravel drive in my old Chevy. The dashboard lights glinted on the bottle of Mad Dog, that favorite wine of winos everywhere. I picked electric melon flavor tonight. I can't stand the taste of anything stronger, but I want to be drunk, and I have to do it on the cheap. They are $3.99 a bottle; I bought a dozen of them yesterday at a c-store three or four towns down the road, as I have every week for the past month.
Now, kneeling. Kneeling and sweating and heart pounding and about to shoot myself in the head. I am suddenly aware of my own pulse throbbing in my interlaced fingers. I peek open an eye and see my hands quivering slightly with each pulse. I have gray hair on my knuckles now.
First year in seminary in 1975, shirtless in the April sun, young and lean and strong and believing and pulling my boxing gloves on my bare knuckles with my teeth. So is Billy Anders, my best friend, shirtless as I am. We dance around the dirt and grass of the quad, in what we imagine is Muhammed Ali style, one of a few hundred college students playing and sunning out on the quad in the first blast of summer to come, a party atmosphere, none besides Billy and me heading to the pulpit. Percy Sledge is singing on somebody's radio. Billy is jabbing, and I'm slipping and throwing right hooks to the body. Over there, Anne, who I will meet later that day, has a Frisbee and a bikini top and denim shorts made with scissors and old high school jeans. Somebody's football spirals over her head. Missing Billy with a wild swing and tripping over each other, both falling heavily to our knees and laughing.
Still on my knees. Still not praying. My hands rip apart and jam themselves in my pockets, my left hand holding the bottle, my right hand holding the gun. The bottle is empty. The gun is not.
I look over at my church, this church I have worked so hard to serve. Red brick, Flemish bond, of a kind that many first churches used in the growing towns of the southern Piedmont as Christianity flourished during America's adolescence. Those good first churches, the firsts of each denomination in each town, always clumped together near the court square in the heart of downtown, older and bigger than the little white clapboard country churches dappling the hills and hollows of my youth.
Oh, how I want to be able to pray again. Even if it is to be angry at God, I want to pray. I want to believe. I want to let go of what I am holding. I want to take my empty hands out of my pockets and put them back together, and pray.
I look down the town street to the other first churches, separated by slight degrees of tradition and little else. They are empty. They do not comfort me.
Breath hitching, caught in my chest just short of the lungs. Orange-colored fermented juice dribbles at the corner of my mouth.
Anne and me, Saturday morning in our apartment, just outside Chapel Hill in 1982. The senior pastor is letting me preach for the first time tomorrow. Her bikini top is buried in the back of the dresser we bought at the Salvation Army a couple of years ago, the week we got back from our honeymoon. The Climax Blues Band sings a mellow song in the big wooden Realistic speakers we bought for our anniversary. A bright yellow T-shirt is stretched tight around her belly. A list of baby names on the counter, William circled at the top of the one for boys. I just got back from a hard run, and I chug my orange juice. Anne laughs and hugs me from behind, belly touching first, then breasts, kissing my neck and wiping off the stream of orange juice from the corner of my mouth.
I am still on my knees. I struggle to pull my left hand off the empty bottle and out of my pocket, and I make a tight fist, then stretch it open, then a fist, then open again, speckling the skin of my palm with red and white. But I can't move my right hand. It stays where it is, holding that gun. That damned gun.
For one month now, I cannot pray because I cannot believe. I have always believed until now, now, when I need my belief the most. I had shrieked God's name when the men in uniforms came to tell me what had happened in Baghdad. It was the last day I said His name aloud.
"Our Father . . ." I whisper and stop.
I must be able to say the prayer my mother taught me over half a century ago. How can I not be able to say it? It always came so easily.
"Our Father . . ." I try and stop again.
The alcohol settles heavily on my brain. If I can just start saying it, maybe by force of habit I can let go of that gun and put my empty hands together again.
". . . but deliver us from evil. For thine is the kingdom, and the power, and the glory. Amen."
Beaming, now, easily saying the last prayer before brand-new soft-cover Bibles are given to the group of third-graders in front of the full church before me, our son Will among them. His hair is still blond; it didn't darken into a rich brown for a few more years yet. Anne in the front pew with the grandparents. The congregation is smiling and forgiving a small favoritism as I kiss my boy on his forehead when I hand him his Bible.
Now, when I need it most, I can't. I can't pray. I slump, sitting down on my calves, my right hand on the gun, my left hand on the ground, holding me from falling prone on this good grass the church landscape committee reseeds every year.
For 30 years, I have led congregations. I have preached on Sunday mornings. I have organized prayer groups on Wednesday evenings. I have visited the sick, comforted the sad, calmed the scared, baptized babies and blessed weddings and spoken gently over the departed. And every minute of it I meant it, every bit of it. I felt it with such a sure strength that it became an arrogance of faith.
But here I am, humbled. A preacher who cannot pray, a man of the cloth who cannot find faith enough to save himself. And I can't get my right hand off that damned thing. Two weeks after the men in uniforms came to tell me that Capt. William A. Mitchell, USA, was blown apart by a bomb made by men he never knew, I bought it. $369.99 at the first gun shop I found in Richmond. It has a three pound trigger pull, the man who sold it to me said. Three pounds of pressure, and it will go off. Squeeze the trigger slowly if I wanted the aim to be true, he said.
I used almost all of Anne's and my emergency cash to buy it.
1995 and Will begging to go on that trip to Canada with his friends. His junior high school French teacher ran a side travel agency and brought a group of paying kids up to Montreal for four days every summer, and it was a huge hit with the 8th-grade set.
Like many a pastor and his wife, Anne and I had a lot less money than the parents of our kid's classmates. The CD-playing Walkman we had bought Billy for his 13th birthday a few months back had pretty much tapped us out. I caught Anne singing along to Garth Brooks on it when making dinner one night, oblivious to me. I goosed her, and she yelped loud enough for the neighbors to hear.
Our trying to explain to Will how expensive the trip was. His trying to understand and not make us feel badly. Both feeling blooming heat of barely-suppressed disappointment. Anne relenting and going to our small stash of emergency cash in the coffee can. Will fiercely hugging his mom and tearing up for joy, the last year he would cry unashamedly before adolescent machismo would put a stop to that.
The gun looks big in my hand. I can see the fat bullets in the cylinder. Why did I load six in it? It's not like I'll be able to shoot twice.
I should fear hell – Hell – if I kill myself. But I cannot live either. The men in uniforms told me the bomb ripped apart a whole side of the hospital. Saddam Hussein's government built that hospital years ago. My son was supposed to be safe there. God was supposed to keep my son safe there. My son was supposed to do God's work there. And men who did not know him murdered him.
May of 2005. Will, a whole head taller than me and graduating medical school, the tuition paid by the Army. Anne ruffling his thick brown hair when Will picks her up to hug her, crying with joy and being the first to call him "Dr. Mitchell." I shake his hand firmly like a father should, then crack and kiss him on the cheek as he bear hugs me.
Anne lived without Will for just two weeks. She died of a heart attack in her sleep the night we came home from Arlington. But I understood. I was not mad at her. I just whispered, "Bye, baby," and kissed her on her forehead when I awoke the next morning and found her cool.
If God is all good, and God is all powerful, how can there be suffering in the world? Why would He allow it?
I clench the gun in my hand, an aging hand, a hand with thick fingers and swollen knuckles and soft palms. I try to suck air deep into my lungs, but it catches even before it gets to the bottom of my throat. I cock the hammer back. The cylinder rotates one step and stops.
The young American soldier in camouflage fatigues with a sidearm on his hip smiled and waved Anne and I on when we visited Will at an Army base in Germany last year. Will had just finished his emergency surgery training and was heading to Baghdad the following week. He was tall and broad-shouldered and beautiful and good and right. Anne and I wandered through the hospital, talking and praying with some of the young men in beds on his floor, several telling me of the wonderful care my son gave them.
I looked at the sign in front of my church. Another joke. Not my church. How can it be my church? I don't deserve it. I don't even have the faith to save myself.
Will was saving the life of a teenaged corporal from Alabama when his own arteries were ripped open by shrapnel from the bomb that destroyed the surgical wing of the hospital. That's not what the men in the uniforms told me – you don't say that after the mother has fainted stone cold on the porch floor and the father is howling the name of God at the sky above – but that is what happened. My son died alone, trying to save a boy he did not know.
I use the barrel of the revolver to brush the hair off my forehead. I press the barrel tightly against my temple. It makes a little angry red circle on the skin.
I close my eyes.
Dying is easier with eyes closed.
I start to cry.
Six weeks ago, our last email from Will. Anne and I crowd around the 15 inch screen at the public library. He is fine. He is safe. He loves us. He has been a real surgeon for hardly even a year now, but he loves what he is doing, and he already is training younger doctors to do what he does. Anne's tears of pride release my own, and we cry a happy cry together, the way older couples can.
Eyes clamped shut, my finger curls around the trigger. I open my eyes one last time and look at my church. It does not comfort me.
I look ahead and start to squeeze the trigger slowly. One pound of pressure.
I try to take a breath. It stops again before it gets to my chest. My cheek twitches. I push the barrel against my temple until it hurts. Two pounds of pressure.
My left hand clenches into a fist one last time. My right arm trembles with tension. I squint in anticipation, squeezing to that third and last pound of pressure.
The boy is about a hundred yards down the street. By the lights of the churches and law offices and shops lining the town street, I can see that he is black. He is a young man, actually. Maybe 15 or 16. He is wearing urban clothes, the clothes some of the young men wear to emulate the rappers they see on television. He is alone.
He walks in a slow strutting roll down the sidewalk, then across the street, to another of the first churches. He stops abruptly in front of it. He looks around, over one shoulder, then the other. Seeing no one, he walks in a quick gait up the steps to the front door.
I cannot move or breathe. I watch.
The young man stops short at the door of the church. I can see it is locked. I watch him hesitate, then look down at the door handle, his hand on the door handle. He is wearing a baseball cap cocked to the side.
A silent moment passes.
With a cry of anguish I can hear a block away, the young man suddenly pounds the door of that church, then slumps to the ground. As I stare silent a hundred yards away, he slumps to the ground in front of the door, hugs his lanky legs to his face, his eyes buried in the knees of his baggy pants. His strong young body shudders with sobs, rocking him back and forth.
My finger on the trigger, the barrel against my temple, ready to die with my knees bent.
. . . hallowed be thy name . . .
I slowly pull the revolver off my head and look at it. A chubby, graying man, I look at it. Then, with a great rushing inhale I fill my lungs with the nighttime Virginia air, cooling my insides like ice cold water on a hot summer day.
. . . thy kingdom come, thy will be done . . .
I thumb the release of the cylinder to open it and turn the gun upwards. The six fat cartridges slowly drop out, one by one, falling noiselessly to the grass below.
. . . and forgive us our trespasses . . .
I rise from my knees, small round splotches of moisture on them. I walk to the concrete steps of the church.
. . . and lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil . . .
With all of my might, I smash the empty gun on the edge of the concrete steps. The cylinder snaps off and the wood handle splinters. Quietly I lean down and pick up the broken pieces and the bullets.
Standing erect, I look down the street at the sobbing boy.
"Amen," I say aloud, and I walk down the street to comfort the boy.