As the clock rolled into the second hour, boredom spread to every corner of the sanctuary. Even the pastor’s wife, Irene, appeared powerless against the forbidden meeting of eyelids and the sudden twitches that accompany the uneasy entry from consciousness to rest. The occasional snap of Mrs. Hallock’s gum transformed into a metronome gone bad; a feverish pace I feared might sprain her tongue or prematurely and irreversibly wear the enamel from her teeth. Just twenty minutes earlier the Johnson twins were content to snap the back of each other’s ears with rubber bands. Now one lay across his mother’s lap and his mirror image over his fathers. Each set of eyes glazed over and mouths agape, like a poisonous gas had incapacitated them. Not even the mischief and energy of five year old hellions could withstand Pastor Wieland’s sermon. As for me the pain was real and tangible, settling below my beltline. For a moment I contemplated turning to the row behind for verification that my tailbone had bore completely through the impenetrable oak pew.
A new kind of restlessness sprouted as Pastor Wieland began sputtering his traditionally prolonged prayer. Before the much anticipated hearty Amen, I offer a prayer of my own. “God, if at all possible, allow his mind to be too consumed with his message and its purpose to hear the collective sigh from his parishioners. Without question the pastor’s a bit antiquated in his thinking and preaching style, but Harwood Grove would be an emptier place without him. He is a faithful servant and a fixture in our community; bless him and Irene fully—and please nudge Irene so that she wakes from her slumber before he lifts his head. Amen.”
From the pastor’s perspective, sneaking in a little work on a Sunday afternoon was indistinguishable from using a butter knife to carve a nun’s heart from her chest while she sleeps. He would carefully avoid lending words to those lines of thinking, but a man of such conviction and strict adherence to the Word need not voice his every thought for us to know them. One could search long and hard and never discover an ounce of hypocrisy with respect to his sermons and how he conducted his daily life. Pastor Wieland made the ideal neighbor, but only one home separating his from mine left me nervous—afraid of the incongruity he might observe in my life with regard to words and actions.
Certainly the ‘old money’ he and Irene descended from would afford the ability to live in relative luxury at the edge of town, but that is precisely the point. Irene found great purpose in staying home to raise her boys to be good men, and her husband opted for the meager salary and general scrutiny of a small town pastor. Together they displayed a sense of purpose that transcended collecting worldly reward. Some in the community busied themselves with the matter of interest earned on inheritance, but anyone with half a brain and one eye saw it spread throughout the community and I suspect much of the principle found its way there also. The pastor joked about why they had not settled in the country, claiming to have heard a clear message from God. “How should a shepherd watch his flock from a distant field? He cannot—he must take residence among them so that he can keep a careful eye on the wolves that would destroy them.” I suspect God trained his eye not only for wolves, but also lambs with a mind to stray.
Finding no use for the last bite of a grilled-cheese sandwich, I tossed it on the saucer and went about clearing the table. The window over the sink provided a clear view of my garden—now a disturbing scene of chaos. Like watching a funeral procession of a loved one, I dug deep to recall memories of better times. The arrival of spring ushered in an overwhelming sense of renewal where the smell of freshly tilled earth settled in my nostrils and a sense of accomplishment as I surveyed the rows of carefully planted seed. Months old now, the memory was stale. In its absence a sense of guilt and neglect settled heavy. I was the shepherd sitting on a hill too far away to reach those things entrusted to his care. The garden represented only my most recent shortcoming, and I suspected someday soon full disclosure would require me to gather the courage to check the rear-view mirror of days past. Presently I found it too painful to examine tiny images of opportunities slipped away.
A wise man would have chosen a flame-thrower, and I contemplated it until I surmised that inquiring at the hardware store about the rental of such an item of destruction would surely prompt a call to local police. Instead I gathered an arsenal of tools from the shed and entered the battleground. No sooner had the first beads of sweat formed on my brow a familiar voice startled me.
“John Benton—I certainly hope deep beneath those weeds there’s an ox in the ditch.”
Pastor Wieland chuckled.
Small talk seemed my only choice for buying time.
“Pastor, what brings you out this afternoon?”
I half-expected him to say the sound of the devil’s tools clanking so near his home woke him from a dead sleep.
“Just heading out for my afternoon walk and thought I’d see how things were with you. What did you think of my sermon this morning?”
“Your sermon—I thought it was long…..I mean long overdue.”
Shifting into full recovery mode, I hoped a few ripe tomatoes and cucumbers would serve as reparation for hasty words.
“Pastor I was sitting in my easy chair after lunch resting peacefully for the day—being Sunday and all. But I began thinking about how displeasing it must be to God to see these beautiful tomatoes go to waste. Do you think you can see past the fact that I just happened to rescue them from certain destruction on the Sabbath?”
His frown melted into a smile.
“Those are beautiful tomatoes, and Irene hasn’t fixed cucumbers and onions in quite some time. I suppose if I pray over them long enough they’d be fit for nourishment.”
Pastor set the vegetables aside. A smirk appeared on my face as I visualized a cat dropped from a rooftop—I felt I recovered reasonably well.
“Back to my sermon, John. Often I feel I’m delivering a general message to the masses, but on rare days I get the distinct impression my sermon is directed at only a handful, and on even rarer days I feel God is funneling my words to one very specific heart. Today I felt you were the only one in the sanctuary. Did you feel it too?”
I had felt it completely. I was the catcher repeatedly calling for a change-up, but God was on the mound shaking off my signs, throwing fast balls directly at my heart. As of yet I couldn’t admit the impact to myself. I needed time to interpret the message and how to properly apply those principles to my life.
“Pastor, you sure it wasn’t Amos Little sitting a row over that was your target? He looked pretty convicted to me.”
“You know, John, maybe you’re correct. I think I’ll head that way. Thanks for the produce.”
Before the pastor reached the edge of my lawn I asked God to forgive me for throwing the trail. I also prayed fervently that Amos wouldn’t return the favor by sending the Pastor back my way.
Even though the sun slipped beneath the horizon and the temperature hovered in the high seventies I lit a fire. My insides were chilly. The pastor’s message dwelt on past indiscretions and conflicts, how easily small words and deeds are perceived by those wronged as more significant than the offender recognizes. That there is no statute of limitations on wrongs needing righted and apologies that lodged and died during the thought process. Reminding us that the road to hell is paved with good intentions and the time for action was yesterday.
The dancing of flames is a mystery of sorts, one moment swaying in unison and another battling to determine sufficient air space for coexistence. If God intended us to be solitary creatures we would have been born in cages, without mouths to speak, ears to listen, hearts to feel, and arms to hug. Each time I am still enough to absorb it, the vastness of his plan for humanity awes me. With night draped over me fully and fire fading to ashes another bitter truth rolled over me with all the subtly of a locomotive. None of us is guaranteed even a single second of tomorrow, all the plans we push off to another day could implode in an instant. How will we feel when He finds us lingering hands full of nothing but excuses?
“Hey Marcus, this is John, tell the boss I’m taking the next couple of days off. Not sure if I have any vacation time left, but pay or no pay I have important business. In his airtight world of self-importance it will be a tough sell, but smile wide when you tell him he’s been trumped by a bigger boss. Thanks, man.”
At seven a.m. the aisles of Nuemann’s Market were practically empty. Truth was business became scarce altogether since the big-box stores opened up. Yet Neil Neumann continued to struggle to make something of what his father and grandfather identified as a vital service to this community. I respected him immensely for that.
“Hey, Neil, got a minute to talk?”
“Nothing but time these days…business ain’t good, John. Took a second shift job at the factory to keep things afloat and Jenny ain’t too happy about it. Keeps pushing me to close the doors, but I just can’t turn my back on what pop and granddad built.”
With little warning sunken eyes lost in the shadows of dark circles began to leak. Thoughts from the night before prompted a reach across the counter. I used my God-given arms for hugging and prepared both my ears to listen. Neil needed hope and encouragement beyond what I could provide, so we prayed silently over the meat counter.
“Sometimes God has a way of altering our paths, fixing broken ways of thinking. It just occurred to me that maybe he was reserving that lonely stretch of empty pew beside me specifically for you and Jenny. Talk it over with her and maybe I’ll see you on Sunday.”
After I offered Neil my handkerchief I meant to say what needed said.
“You remember when your dad ran the store, how all the boys stopped here every morning before and after school, picking up a pack of gum or handful of candy? Candy meant nothing to me. At that time my love was baseball. I idolized every facet of the game; the sounds and smells of the ball park, the players that were bigger than life. They had a way of transporting me to where my mind needed to be.”
I retrieved a pack of baseball cards from my pocket and placed them on the counter.
“Don’t remember the exact date I stole them, just that I did. In the following days and weeks I couldn’t muster the testicular fortitude to bring them back. The look of disappointment in your dad’s eyes would have crushed me. But in all these years I also couldn’t bring myself to open them.”
Beside the wrinkled and yellowed pack of cards I laid a fifty dollar bill and continued my explanation.
“Figure a dime for the cards and forty-three years of interest, ought to be close. It’s amazing how heavy an ounce worth of cards became though the years. Unfortunately, Neil, some things can never be made fully right. Because of my hesitation and head-strong ways your dad has already passed. It doesn’t have to occur today or tomorrow, but I need you to grant me forgiveness on his behalf.”
I traveled no more than a half a block down Main when Neil burst through the door after me.
“Hey, John, there’s a Mickey Mantle rookie card in here!”
I lifted my head skyward to find a deeper shade of blue than a moment earlier, and an irrevocable smile spread across my face as I called back to him.
“It belongs to you, Neil—it always has.”
As I walked northward down Main the steps came easier. For the first time in decades it felt good to be moving toward something, instead of hovering or in retreat. The subtleties of the sidewalk consumed me, in particular the division between each section. Without the one before or after it was simply a concrete pad, an island of isolation, having no beginning point and leading nowhere. Every life needs a destination.
Stopping by the flower shop seemed the right thing to do. It could never be enough, but I didn’t want to arrive empty-handed. With bouquet in hand I rounded the corner and the sun ducked behind a dark bank of clouds and shadows melted into pools below grade. Landscape surrounding the place was immaculate, entertainment they shipped in top notch, and the level of care impeccable—all of it cleverly designed to absolve us from guilt. We would sleep sounder if a loved one stayed somewhere with a peaceful or regal name like Shady Acres, Bickford Place, or The Regency, but fancy names fooled no one. Each of the residents carried forlorn expressions like they were standard issue, a byproduct of realizing that for the lion’s share this place was the last stop.
I never intended to stop coming. Certain aspects were easy, like looking past how time twisted the body and expressions of the woman who raised me. In a strange but comforting way, reciprocating those things she had done for me so many years earlier; reading a book out loud, brushing her hair, stroking her hand, they all seemed to draw the arcs together and complete the circle of life. But sadly and without warning I reached the limit of my inner-strength. On a rainy Wednesday afternoon she could no longer recall my name, that I was her firstborn—that I ever existed at all. Selfishly I pressed until she became so confused and agitated she chased me from her room. How absurd it sounds to say hurt kept me away for this long, but I am at a complete loss to describe this horrible thing that swooped into our lives, gobbled up something as sacred as memories, and in its wake left behind an indescribable emptiness.
I arranged the flowers in a vase on the nightstand, and drawing up a chair I was content watching the gentle rise and fall of her chest as she slept. A loud noise in the hallway caused her eyelids to flutter before slamming open. She seemed less concerned about a stranger sitting bedside than with the contents of the vase. Her eyes lightened and the corners of her mouth lifted.
“Carnations are my favorite—how did you know?”
I grinned and shrugging my shoulders.
“I thought every woman loved carnations?”
“Perhaps they do, but they hold a very special meaning in my heart.”
Her eyes drifted from the present into the past and she began telling a story I’d heard a hundred times before, but was starved to hear again.
“My late husband brought me carnations on our very first date. We lived in the country and he never was good with directions, you know. He was to arrive at 5:00 pm, but somehow got lost. By 5:45 I was busy trying to manage the prospect of being stood up. Just after 6:00 the bell rang and I swung open the door and my entire world changed forever. Out of all the prospective women out there, such a beautiful man arrived on my doorstep wishing to spend time with just me. From that moment forward, when in his company, time completely lost any relevance at all.
We sat by the pond talking for hours before he worked up the courage to hold my hand. He was a strong man and his hands were calloused from farm work, but he held my hand like I imagine God holding a dove. It was harvest season and he had to leave much earlier than he wished, but as he walked me home he explained the meaning of the three different colored carnations. Light red represented admiration, and he was already consumed by it today. The white stood for pure love; he said that he firmly believed we would discover it together in the months to follow. Finally the last carnation was dark red and symbolized the deepest love and affection one can feel for another. Something so splendid it had to be spread across decades to fully appreciate the expanse and depth of its beauty. I blushed as he told me he wanted to share that gift with me. While the sun was busy settling into the horizon that evening, I hid his words in my heart, and even though he’s passed now because of him my heart remains full forever.”
She stopped speaking and stared at the flowers again, as if they were a portal between yesterday and today. She blinked several time before turning to me.
“I apologize for boring you with such a story, and I’m very sorry my condition doesn’t allow me to remember people and names. I didn’t catch yours.”
Tending the corners of my eyes I composed myself and searched for a proper response.
“Names are kind of overrated aren’t they? If someone decided long ago carnations were called something else, or if they had no name at all, would they mean any less to you? Let’s keep it simple—just call me Sonny and I’ll call you Ma if it doesn’t bother you. I enjoyed your story and would like to make a promise to visit once a week if you’ll have me.”
The way she busied herself fiddling with a button on her gown made me nervous about the proposal.
“Sonny—you’re right about names. You seem like a nice enough fellow, and being a good listener is very important in life. I think I’d enjoy your company on a regular basis.”
As I left Bickford Place that evening I noticed someone sitting on the park bench just beyond the door. Twilight didn’t allow for positive identification, but his words to me did.
“Well, John—I can tell you for certain it wasn’t Amos Little God was speaking to yesterday morning, but I think you already knew that. How’s your mother doing?”
“Pastor Wieland, thanks for being the glue that holds people like me close and long enough to God that we develop a lasting bond.”
We shared the bench until the moon hovered high above us. Spoken words were minimal, but I remember hearing something very profound that night that still sustains me, and I’m almost certain it wasn’t the pastor voice I heard whispering.
“Humility is life’s great equalizer, a brutal reminder you are only a renter in this world. Continuing to wrestle with things beyond your control exposes the flaws of the human mind and spirit, but I love you anyway. Have you considering that losing your mother-son relationship was required for you to discover her as a friend? Friendship is what she needs most in her last days. John, I need you to leave here tonight feeling you salvaged those things within your power to affect, and isn’t that the way every day should end?”