I wake up disjointed. The clock has a number but it doesn’t register. A man’s voice is coming through the wall in a slow, steady cadence, like TV but without the distance. I approach the bedroom door and recognize the voice: The Reverend.
After my father died my mother stopped going to Mass and took us to her childhood church, a place with less rituals, less talk of sin, and with ice cream socials in the basement. Christianity lite. But once I declared myself, I saw what was there along: polite disdain barely concealing hatred.
She prayed for my salvation. She prayed and nothing happened. I wasn’t changed. She told me that my sin was another thorn in Jesus’ head. Maybe some people could hold those opposing thoughts in their head––that they were loved by God and what they did was hated––but I couldn’t fathom it. I started to drop things that were too heavy to carry until eventually I had let all of it go.
The Reverend came to our house then and talked with me, prayed for me to find my way. I don’t know where I found the strength but I refused to bow my head and pray for salvation. I was told I had no humility. But that was not the thing to tell someone who knew humiliation so intimately, who had felt hatred every day. In my light, smoke-ozoned voice I told him that I would not return to his church and I handed back my confirmation Bible. For a full minute his eyes looked at the cheap black-covered book in a kind of shock. I had listened to ministers on television telling me I was an abomination for several years by then. I had cried and prayed about it, but that day sitting in the living room with a suicide attempt behind me, and rage growing in me, I knew God had to die so I could live.
I dress slowly, methodically, and make my way to the hall. The Reverend’s back is to me. He sits stiffly beside my mother. His presence is like that of an actor: something false and formal with malleability just beneath the surface.
He turns and says my name. His eyes are bright blue. His face is smooth and serene with a high forehead and bemused smile. I used to wonder where the term happy as a clam came from. If you look at a clam it actually seems smug. That is the Reverend: smug as a clam.
He rises and shakes my hand. His palm is dry and his grasp is firm. “I’m just speaking with your mother but I’d like to talk with you when I’m done,” he says.
I nod. It doesn’t sound like a request. “I’ll be in the kitchen.”
Behind him my mother’s face is trailed with tears and a little snot. She dabs at it with a wadded tissue.
I walk to the kitchen, feet hitting linoleum. Measuring coffee my hand trembles like a toddler’s lip promising breakdown. No sign of my sister or the hospice nurse. I stare out the window and listen to the coffeemaker hiss and gurgle.
The Reverend appears in the doorway as I pour coffee. “Your mother is a very strong woman,” he says. He talks about faith and the afterlife and accepting the unknowable, the difficulty of death and God’s love. Platitudes are second nature to him and he brushes them like old hair.
My body is prickly and flushed. Sweat blossoms from every pore.
“I was hoping we could say a prayer for your mother.”
I stand as a ghost. The Reverend’s hand is outstretched to me.
“I’d rather not,” I say.
He looks surprised, then disappointed. “Well, do you mind if I say a prayer for her?”
“I’ll leave you to it,” I say, pushing off the countertop at my back and walking out to the patio. I realize that I don’t have my cigarettes or lighter but I remain. The yard is indistinct, an impressionistic patchwork of dots that I can’t focus into one coherent scene.
When I hear the Reverend’s car leave, I return inside and walk upstairs to check on my mother.
“How was your visit?”
“Good, it was good,” she says. Tears form and her mouth changes shape.
“You know, I tried to be a good person.”
I wait, holding still.
“But I was so angry after your dad died. I was angry at God.”
After my father died there had been a lot drinking and yelling. Maybe it was her way to still keep a part of him. Then that ended and there was God. Though sometimes after church I found her sitting on the couch still in her coat with its collar buttoned all the way up, staring into space, eyes fixed but seeing something other than the room.
She looks away from me and her tiny shoulders heave. It looks painful. “I’m scared. I want us to be together again in heaven.”
The idea of us in our bodies reuniting on some far shore is absurd to me. I sit on the bed and hold my mother’s hand. She closes her eyes and we pray. I wish for her to die. I try to think of my mother’s late period God who has watched over her garden and spoken to her in many ways, but like all working deities her God is small and hand-held, personable to one person, and the hand that he holds is only my mother’s hand. Her prayer is silent. She closes her eyes and a smile parts her lips, small and private. She squeezes my hand. She looks at me, radiant and doped. “Let Jesus dwell in your heart.”
Nate Lippens is the author of two chapbooks, most recently Mince (Bridge Productions, 2016). His short fiction has appeared in Hobart, Blue(s), and Erratum, among others. He can be found on Twitter @NateLippens