James Mulhern has published fiction in several literary journals, with more stories to be published this year and next. One of his stories appeared in The Library’s Best, a collection of best short stories. In September of 2013, he was chosen as a finalist for the Tuscany Prize in Catholic Fiction.
He was granted a writing fellowship to study in the United Kingdom during the summer of 2015, where he participated in seminars at Oxford University’s Exeter College. In September of 2015, two short stories received Honorable Mentions for the Short Story America Prize. His story “Smoke Rings” was Runner-Up for the InkTears Annual Short Story Contest in March of 2016.
He has received eleven acceptances from literary journals for short stories/adaptations from his novel Molly Bonamici (February 2016), a psychological thriller set in Boston and South Florida. Three of those short stories received awards. In 2016 and 2017, additional stories will be published in an anthology, as well as in literary magazines.
A Short Story
By James Mulhern
It has been two years since my ex-wife, Kate, announced that she was unhappy and wanted to end our marriage. I had confronted her about emails from her female lover, Deb, whom she met in yoga class.
Kate said that our relationship lacked passion and if I were honest with myself, I would recognize this truth. In order for both of us to grow, she explained, we needed “clarity in our communication process.” Meeting Deb was the beginning of a new phase in her life. A process of individuation, she called it, a term Dr. Kelleher, her Jungian psychologist had used.
“Crisis is good, Jack,” she said one morning while we were both getting ready for work. “Both of us have the opportunity for real growth here. I’m sorry that you had to find out this way, but why the hell were you snooping around in my email account?” She looked at me in the mirror as she applied her makeup. Her blue eyes, the first thing that I had noticed about her when we sat across from each other in high school math class, seemed cold and hard.
“The computer geek fixing the hard drive found them. I wasn’t looking for anything. I had no reason to be suspicious. I wouldn’t invade your personal space.” I sat on the edge of the tub, feeling a pit in my stomach, wanting to lash out at her.
She laughed. “Jack, that’s just it. You don’t even know who I am, what I want. You don’t ask me anything. You don’t listen. All you ever do is sit in that goddamn chair and read.”
“So I read! Jesus, Kate. I’m not a womanizer. I don’t drink. I’m home every night with you and the girls. What the fuck did I do wrong?” I could feel my cheeks flush, and my hands were trembling.
She turned and faced me, her hands behind her back, bracing the edge of the sink. “Look, I care about you very much and I don’t want to hurt you. But this whole thing isn’t working.”
“You mean our marriage?”
“Yes. Our marriage.”
“You want to end it? Just like that?”
“Jack, I don’t want to wake up someday and feel I’ve wasted my life.”
I couldn’t believe how cavalier she seemed. “You’re saying our marriage has been a waste?” How could this be happening?
“It’s nobody’s fault. You’ll be happier, too. You’ll see.”
“You can’t know that I’ll be happier.”
“You’re right. I can’t know.” She was suddenly crying. “Because I don’t know who you are anymore. You don’t talk to me. This is not how I wanted it to be.”
“Kate, is it really that bad? I thought it was pretty good.”
“Not bad. I just need something different, something more. I’m not happy with things the way they are. I’m sorry, Jack, but life is too short for us to be unhappy.”
“I’m not unhappy.”
“But I am.” Her voice was tight, and the red spot that appeared on her forehead whenever she was upset was obvious. “You never want to do anything,” she said, “I’ve tried. Really, I’ve tried.” She turned back to the mirror, rifling quickly through her makeup bag. A lipstick rolled into the sink. “If you want to spend your life holed up in this house, you can. Not me.” She wasn’t looking at me, staring directly into her own face, a face that I had loved for over twenty years. My auburn-haired beauty, I would call her, lightly tracing the line of small freckles over her cheeks and the bridge of her nose with my fingertips, as she laughed and said I was tickling her. I couldn’t remember the last time I had done that.
I wanted to say so much. Remind her of everything we had been through, that we had two teenage daughters to consider. But I couldn’t speak. Shock, I guess. I tried to convince myself that she was just in a foul mood that day. Maybe she was going through a rough patch in therapy. This, too, would pass, I hoped. Christ! I didn’t even give a damn about her lesbian lover. Let her have a fling if it would make her feel better.
But things didn’t improve. Eventually I moved out. The divorce became a reality. Our girls, Danielle and Colleen, of course were upset, running through the gamut of emotions, but they, too, came to terms with the change. Danielle would be moving away to college the next fall, and Colleen, a ninth-grader and never very studious, immersed herself in the social aspects of high school.
I have never been one for confrontations or conflict. I gave Kate everything that she wanted in the divorce. Mostly, I just wanted the whole thing over with. I heard that they needed teachers in Florida, and I attended a job fair, where I was offered five jobs in one hour. In August of this past year I began teaching at a school in Fort Lauderdale. I thought a complete change would help me start over, or as Kate would say, “move forward in my spiritual journey.”
One day, Deidre Schleppi, a fellow English teacher, and I are walking down the hallway. Someone has smashed the glass front of a vending machine. Bags of Lays potato chips, Doritos, Starbursts, Cheetos, Skittles, and other assorted healthy foods that we provide for our students lie on the floor in a jumbled mess. Students, laughing and screaming, crouch, dive, slide, and shove each other to get the goods.
“Hey!” I shout. “Get away from there.”
When they see Deidre and me, they begin to bolt.
“Fuck you!” a girl in a red dress screams.
By the time we reach the machine, the looters have dispersed. To our amazement, everything is gone except for a ripped bag of skittles, the contents of which are spread across the floor.
“This school is out of control,” Deidre says, looking around. “Where the hell is security?”
Ms. Lane comes out of her classroom. “I called the office, guys,” she says. “I was eating my lunch in the back of my room when I heard this loud crash. I was scared to death. I didn’t dare step outside.” She is a beautiful 20-something brunette from El Paso, Texas. Fresh-faced and athletic, she could pass for one of the kids.
In a few moments, Ms. Jackson, our principal, and two maintenance people show up. Cecelia is a demure Latin woman with a broom always in hand, and Carver, a tall, serious man with pale blue eyes and a red stache that he obsessively fingers.
“Did any of you see who did this?” Ms. Jackson’s impeccably clean and shiny blond hair glitters like a helmet under the fluorescent light. She’s wearing a stylish black business suit and pumps—probably Gucci, Prada, or some other expensive designer.
“Not exactly. Ms. Schleppi and I were just returning from the cafeteria when we saw a crowd of kids making off with the food. It was a free for all. Reminded me of Filene’s Basement at Christmas.” I laugh.
All business, Ms. Jackson finds no humor in the situation. She squats down to pick up a big piece of glass. To Cecelia and Carver she says, “If a student cuts himself, we could have ourselves a terrible lawsuit.” She waves the glass in the air. Cecelia ducks slightly, as though she thinks Ms. Jackson might scratch her with it. “I want this thing moved and the whole area swept thoroughly.
“You English teachers,” she says to the rest of us, “need to have more of a presence in the hallway. I’d appreciate it if you check the hallway periodically and keep an eye on which students use the vending machine. We all should be vigilant.”
I look around the dimly lit hall with its pea-green floors and beat-down blue lockers and think, Shit. Another pain-in-the-ass thing to do. When do we get to teach?
“Will that be a problem?”
“Yeah, I have a problem,” Deidre says. “Where’s security? Why aren’t they up here during lunch? It’s not the teachers’ responsibility to patrol the campus.” Her face is red.
“Some of the students are pretty disruptive,” I say. “Something’s gotta be done.” I can feel my own anger rising.
“Look. I understand where you guys are coming from. But security can’t do it alone. I need the cooperation of my teachers.”
Ms. Lane says, “Isn’t anybody watching the cameras?” She points to the camera at the end of the hall.
“Well, sure. They’re supposed to be. On my way up here, I checked with Ms. Vickman. Evidently, she screwed up. She didn’t have the damn camera on, or it’s broken, or God knows what’s wrong with the system. I promise you I’ll check into it. By the end of the week, I’ll have this fixed,” she says, patting the side of the vending machine, “and I’ll be watching the cameras myself.”
The period bell rings and students begin to enter the corridor. Ms. Jackson pushes her way through a group of flashy Latin girls who mutter under their breath “bitch” and “fat ass,” but Jackson either doesn’t hear, or chooses to ignore them.
The next day I teach “Civil Disobedience” to my English Three class.
As always, it takes a while to get the students settled. When I tell them to put their cell phones, iPods, and any other electronic devices away, I always feel like the classroom is about to take off. I’m the flight attendant and they are my passengers.
“Put all book bags underneath your desks and open your textbooks to page 370.”
I start to read Thoreau’s essay aloud. The kids are talking over me. A few haven’t opened their books yet. Eventually though, the class settles down, becomes less frenetic, and some are listening. Mostly, they don’t understand the turgid prose, so I have to stop every few sentences and paraphrase. When I get to the sentence, “The only obligation which I have a right to assume is to do at any time what I think right,” Leo Turpin, one of the chronic nappers, raises his hand. The other kids think he is cool and call him “Turp.”
“So this guy is saying that we don’t have to do what other people tell us?” He leans back in his chair, smirking.
“In a way, Leo. Thoreau is talking about an individual’s conscience as being the most important aspect of who we are. You remember Emerson? ‘Nothing is at last sacred but the integrity of your own mind’ and his other quote, ‘What have I to do with the sacredness of traditions, if I live wholly from within?’ ” He looks clueless, as do most of the others.
Brandi, a heavyset black girl who is always writing about her diabetes, raises her hand. “Isn’t he the guy that invented electricity?”
“You’re talking about Edison. He invented the light bulb. Good point though.” I don’t think it’s a good point, but sometimes you lie because at least students are listening and some semblance of a discussion has begun.
Darren from the back shouts, “What page?”
Sandy, a quiet Pakistani girl next to him, points to the paragraph in his book. Sandy types are blessings.
Beneatha by the back window says, “I gotta use the bathroom.”
“Not now,” I say firmly.
“Mr. . . . ” She looks around, confused. I hear her say to Reggie under her breath, “What’s his name?” I have been her teacher for four months.
“Mr. McCarthy, if you don’t let me go, my pussy’s gonna burst.” This is followed by laughter from the others.
“You better go,” I say. “And don’t be such a smartass with that mouth of yours.”
Amelia and Brandi are whispering. Then Amelia raises her hand.
“I like this guy,” she says. At first I think she is going to tell us about another boyfriend who broke her heart, but I am jubilant to realize she is talking about Thoreau. “It’s cool what he says about government and how we don’t need one.”
Brandi adds, “Yeah, why should we have to follow laws if we don’t agree with them? We should only have to listen to our own conscious. No one has a right to tell us how to think or what we should do.”
“It’s conscience, you moron,” Mary Grace, a pimple-faced obese white girl from Georgia shouts from the back of the room. She is always reading. Lately, she is consumed with the Bible. She told me she was going to finish it by the end of the school year. “And Mr. McCarthy, I don’t think living by yourself in the woods for two years like Thoreau did is healthy. I think he was a narcissist.”
“What’s a narcissist?” Brandi asks.
“It’s a person that is really into himself. Very self-centered.”
Mary Grace snickers and opens Flannery O’Connor’s Wise Blood. I don’t care that she rarely pays attention to what we are reading in class. She is far ahead of the other students.
“Amelia and Brandi both make good points,” I add. “Thoreau thinks our conscience is very important. An individual, according to him, should have the freedom to disobey a law that his conscience tells him is unjust. He’s saying that it is really important for us to speak up if we have decided that something isn’t right. What would happen, though, if we all decided to ignore the laws that we disagreed with? And what would happen if we didn’t have any laws at all? If we didn’t pay attention to what other people needed and just lived for ourselves?”
Brandi says, “Everyone should just do what they want. We shouldn’t have to follow rules if we think they’re dumb. It’s messed up.”
“This school is like a prison,” Amelia says, and the other members of the class are suddenly very interested.
Someone says, “Yeah. Fuck this place.”
“Hey! Watch your language,” I say.
“Then bits of black dust begin to spew out of the air conditioning vent next to the American flag.
“What’s that?” Trisha, a student prone to hysteria, screams.
“Mr.! There’s black shit all over my desk,” Mike says.
“Lily, you got some in your hair!” Vega jumps up and points.
Lily pushes her hands through her hair and screams. “Oh my God!”
The fire alarm goes off and I manage to guide my class along the corridor and down the east stairwell to the designated area of lawn behind the school. After accounting for all my students who meet me under a fichus tree, I walk over to Deidre and Ms. Lane, who are leaning against a chain-link fence by a section of dead grass.
“Stupid bastards,” Deidre says. “They are working on the roof and they forget to turn off the ventilation system. All of us breathing in that tar. That stuff is so carcinogenic.”
“Really?” Lane gasps. “Cancer runs in my family. Like I need any more risk factors.” She puts her hand over her mouth, and looks visibly distressed.
“Look at her,” Deidre says, pointing to Jackson who is yelling up at two roofers descending a ladder by the auditorium. “I’m sure she’s giving them hell. Probably worried about another lawsuit. Forget about the health of the faculty and students.” She shakes her head.
“She’s not so bad,” Lane says. “It’s not her fault that they fucked up. Can’t blame her for everything. She’s got a lot on her plate.” Lane looks smug, like she knows something we don’t.
“What do you mean?” I ask.
“I was talking to her secretary, Elsa. She said Jackson has a mother at home with dementia and a brother who doesn’t do anything but hang out all day. He’s unemployed. Never even finished high school. She said Jackson’s been getting a lot of calls from neighbors who find her mother wandering around the neighborhood. Her brother is usually stoned in his room. A total loser.”
Brandi and Amelia come running over to us.
“Is the school on fire?” Brandi asks excitedly.
“No, but we’ll probably all get cancer,” Deidre mumbles, then laughs.
I explain to the students about the tar and tell them not to worry. “I’m sure they’ll clean it all up.”
Carver and Cecelia have joined Jackson and the roofers. Jackson is giving the two of them some directives. They nod their heads, ask a couple questions, and then head into the building. Jackson takes her radio from her waist and says something. A few minutes later, Ms. Vickman and two other security guards make the rounds among the crowd of faculty and students. We are told that we’ll be allowed to enter the building in about twenty minutes, once the maintenance crew has had a chance to clean up. The students are disappointed that the school didn’t go up in a blaze.
“They don’t care about us,” Amelia says. “We could get cancer and die.”
I explain to the kids that their chances of getting cancer from this one incident are slim.
“Uh-uh,” Brandi says. “This ain’t right. It’s like that guy Walden said.”
“You mean Thoreau,” I say.
“Yeah him. This is a type of injustice. We should break a law or something.” She’s smiling and wide-eyed.
“Yeah. We should stage some kinda civil obedience,” Amelia adds. “Make a big statement.”
“Disobedience. You dumbass,” Brandi says.
I decide to teach a less political text the next day so I choose what I think is a benign piece by Langston Hughes called “Salvation,” a bittersweet essay in which Hughes recounts his childhood attendance at a church revival and the “special meeting for children ‘to bring the young lambs to the fold’ ” at the end of the service. Most of my students come from religious backgrounds so I think they will be able to relate. In the essay, Hughes relays his anxiety and frustration as he “kept waiting to see Jesus,” how he believed that Jesus would literally come into the church and walk down the aisle. That night he cried over his deception, when after waiting an interminable amount of time during which his “aunt came and knelt at [his] knees and cried, while prayers and songs swirled all around [him] in the little church,” he finally approached the altar, pretending to “see” Jesus come, joining the fold of “little lambs” (his tired peers) who had already been “saved.”
The reading of this essay creates an animated discussion about beliefs. Kayla, one of my favorites, announces, “I have a question about the Bible. Are we supposed to believe that Jonah was swallowed by a whale and lived inside that thing for three days? Cause I think that’s crazy! I don’t believe that junk is true, Mr. McCarthy. Is it true?” And she looks at me with an adamant cause-I-just-really-gotta-know expression on her face, as though I will end her confusion right then and there.
I answer, as teachers are supposed to respond, respectful of the students, many of whom come from Biblical literalist religious traditions, that people read the Bible in different ways: some believe that it is the literal word of God, and others believe that the stories are meant to be understood symbolically. In America, I add, we believe in tolerance, and respect the diversity of religious beliefs.
Vega, who is seated at the back of the room, bursts into laughter at something she is remembering. She jumps up and down in her seat, and exclaims, “Jesus came into my church this weekend.”
She runs to the front of the room, sits down, and begins her story, fluttering her hand in front of her mouth, excited in her recollection, laughing, her white teeth shining. “There’s this homeless guy. He thinks he’s Jesus.”
The class explodes with laughter. Brandi, Amelia, and others said, “I know him!” They exchange stories of this man, discussing how he’s made the rounds in their churches.
Vega continues, “He just walked in, said he was Jesus, and started rollin’ on the floor. We were all singin’ and the pastor, he just ignored him. I wanted to laugh, but I knew my mother would kill me.” I, like Vega’s classmates, find the story amusing, so I prod her. I want the details, trying to picture the reactions of the congregation more completely.
“No one did anything? They just ignored him?” I ask.
“Yeah.” She laughs. “We didn’t want to disrespect him. We just carried on!”
The other students share their anecdotes, and then I bring the class back to order, back to our discussion of Hughes’s “Salvation.” Students draw comparisons between their individual religious experiences and those of Langston Hughes.
Turpin wakes from his nap and says, “I don’t believe Jesus even existed. And how can someone pay for our sins by getting nailed to a cross? That shit don’t make sense.” He grins, looking around the classroom for approval. “Turp” is the unspoken leader among his peers. Students are afraid to disagree with him.
Mike says, “Yeah. I don’t believe any of that stuff either. It’s a bunch of propaganda to keep the masses under control. I read that somewhere. The oxycodone of the masses.” He smiles and nods his head.
“You mean opium of the people. What Karl Marx, a famous philosopher, actually said was ‘Religion is the sigh of the oppressed creature, the heart of a heartless world and the soul of soulless conditions. It is the opium of the people.’ ”
“You’re so smart, Mr. McCarthy. How do you remember all those quotes?” Amelia says.
“I read a lot, and all of you should, too. Reading helps make you a free thinker.”
Mary Grace says, “You can read all you want but it won’t make you a better person. You need to act in the world, not retire from it like Thoreau. Helping others is what God wants us to do.”
Sandy, who barely speaks in class, pipes up, “I agree with Mary Grace.” She glances at Leo and Mike. “And free thinking should not allow people to make fun of others’ beliefs.” Then she slouches on her desk, looking sheepish.
“I have a right to say whatever I want, Sandy,” Turp says. “Like that guy Edison said.”
Mary Grace puts down O’Connor’s novel, her face bright red. She takes off her glasses; her eyes twitch, and her forehead is sweating. “It’s Emerson. And you’re all as dumb as rocks, especially you Turd!”
Beneatha, who sits in the desk in front of her, quickly asks to go to the bathroom. When she passes my desk, she whispers, “That white girl’s crazy” and hurries out of the room
“Fuck you, you fat ugly bitch!” Turp says and laughs. Mike laughs, too. The girls in the room look at Mary Grace with both pity and fear.
Mary Grace snaps her teeth and turns down her lip. She throws her psychology textbook at Turpin and almost hits him in the head. Luckily, he dodges and the book hits the wall. “You are all a bunch of pigs, especially you, Turd. And you’re no better than Turd, Mr. McCarthy. I know you think that because you’re a teacher you know everything, but you don’t! I read, but I pray, too. And I try to help other people by going to church and reaching out to others.”
Turpin laughs. “Admit it. You go to church because you have no friends. Get a life.” He looks at his peers with a big grin.
Mary Grace charges Turpin and some of the students run for the door. The girls scream. Mary Grace begins choking Turpin; his face blanches. I press the emergency alarm and dial security at the same time. Mike pulls the two apart, managing to free Turpin from Mary Grace, who kneels on the floor and places her hands together in prayer: “Do not give dogs what is holy, and do not throw your pearls before pigs, lest they trample them underfoot and turn to attack you.’ ” Then she stands on her chair, looking up at the ugly water-stained ceiling tiles, hands raised, a crazed look on her face. “We are all sinners and the wages of sin is death, but the free gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord.”
The security guy, Mr. Pierre, enters, a tall black guy with dreadlocks. He glimpses Mary Grace, then looks at me and raises his eyebrows. I nod. Beneatha returns from the bathroom, standing behind him, as if for protection. “I told you that girl was crazy, Mr. She thinks that she’s Joan of Narc. I’m getting out of here. Types like her might have a gun. It’s always the Caucasian kids who go nuts and shoot everyone up.” The remaining students follow her, hurrying out of the room.
“Don’t worry, Mr. McCarthy. I’ll get them to return,” Mr. Pierre says. Mary Grace is surprisingly quiet and well behaved now, a strange smile on her face.
“Come with me, young lady,” Mr. Pierre says.
She puts her glasses on and begins to follow him out the door.
“Could you take Leo Turpin to the office and make sure he’s okay? He looked fine, but Mary Grace really went after him.”
“Sure. I got your back.” He has a kind smile.
I sit at my desk, trying to absorb what has just happened. The experience unnerved me. And it wasn’t so much the chaos. Mary Grace, as deranged as she had acted, uttered a truth about me. I did think I knew a lot. I did keep to myself. In the stillness of the classroom, I sit at my desk, looking out at the swaying palm trees and clouded sky. Some droplets began to fall on the vegetation.
Soon the students return, ushered in by Mr. Pierre. I thank him and tell the class to spend the rest of the period reading quietly. I fill out the necessary paperwork to document what has happened, but am preoccupied by what Mary Grace said, reflecting on my arrogance and self-centeredness.
That afternoon, I stay late to put grades into the computer, which is a rarity for me. I’m usually one of the first to leave. When I exit the building, the parking lot is nearly empty. In the far corner, behind the cafeteria dumpster, I spot Jackson, who waves for me to come over. She’s staring at the side of her silver Audi as I approach.
“Look at this.”
Someone has keyed her car from front to back on the driver’s side.
“Well that sucks,” I say, rubbing my hand over a portion of the scratch. Then I see where the vandal etched ‘bitch.’
“At least they spelled it right.” Jackson laughs.
“You can check these cameras, can’t you?” I point to them and wonder if the car scratching is Brandi and Amelia’s doing, a bit of civil disobedience. I’m pissed at the monsters I might have created.
“Nope. The entire surveillance system is down. I have a service person coming tomorrow. It seems everything’s falling apart. Everything’s broken. Can’t even park in my designated spot because of the burst pipe in front of the school. God knows when they’ll be through with that project. I thought my car would be safe over here, off the beaten track.”
“Nothing’s safe anymore,” I say.
“You can say that again.” She leans against the hood of the car and takes a cigarette out of her purse. “You want one?”
“Nah. I don’t smoke.”
“One of my vices. Helps me with the stress.” She lights up, then exhales slowly. “I know the kids hate me. Most of the faculty, too. But I’m just trying to do my job. Keep things running smoothly, maybe make a few improvements. Get us the money we need. You understand that, don’t you?”
Her cellphone rings and she takes it out of her back pocket, then steps away while holding up her index finger. She speaks softly into the phone. Her expression is strained and serious.
When she’s finished, she says, “My mother. She keeps asking for me. That was the aide who looks in on her a couple times a week. Alzheimer’s is a horrible disease. Do you have anyone in your family with it?”
“No. Well at least not yet.”
“Good.” She tamps her cigarette out against the side of the dumpster, then flicks it inside. “I wouldn’t wish that disease on anyone. Watching someone lose their mind is awful, Jack.” I’m surprised by her use of my first name.
“It must be difficult for you.”
“My mother isn’t who she used to be. She was a strong woman, very independent. I wish I had asked her more questions when she was well. I wish I had taken the time to talk to her. Really talk to her. We spend too much time in our own heads. There is so much I wish I knew about her life, but it’s too late. If only I had asked.” She is staring at something in the distance. Then she nods her head, not to me, but to something she is thinking. “I miss her.” She sighs and looks into my face. Her eyes are rheumy. “But we all have our problems. Your day wasn’t so great either. I suspended Mary Grace for two weeks and had Elsa set up an appointment with the school psychologist.”
“I’m glad. That poor girl needs help. Thank you.”
“Thank you for coming over. I needed to vent.”
“We can all use a little of that.”
“I’m outta here,” she says, opening her car door. “You should go home, too. Before you get drenched.” She looks up. “That sky looks ominous.” A flash of lightening zigzags in the sky beyond her.
On the way home, I think about the chaos and brokenness that surrounds me—the tumult in my classroom, the ridiculous vending machine, the cameras that do not work, Jackson’s mother wandering and getting lost, my failed marriage, even my aging body. The thought of all these things depresses me.
It begins to rain hard now, as is often the case during South Florida afternoons. People dodge puddles as they hurry across the street, some with umbrellas, others holding bags over their heads. When I pass the church on the corner of 26th Street and 15th avenue, the rain is pelting, obscuring the road in front of me. I drive into the parking lot to wait it out and read the large quote on the entry sign. The irony in the words of St. Francis strikes me: “We have been called to heal wounds, to unite what has fallen apart, and to bring home those who have lost their way.”
But could my wounds, or those of anyone else, ever be really healed? And isn’t it a law of physics that objects in our world eventually fall apart?: entropy, the gradual decline into disorder leading ultimately to the death of our universe. Galaxies are floating further and further away, drifting into the infinity of space. That is alienation, not unity. On this October day, so much of life seems “fallen apart,” spiraling into an inevitable state of decline.
What exactly is the way? Who will tell us? Had Mary Grace been trying to tell me? Kate? Maybe I was too self-absorbed during our marriage. “You don’t ask me anything. You don’t listen. . . . I don’t know who you are anymore. You don’t talk to me,” she had said. My eyes begin to burn. I realize that even I am not sure who I am. Midway through my life, I am lost.
These are my thoughts as I sit in the steeple-shadowed parking lot. I put the wipers on high and rub the inside of the fogged-up windshield. Lightening crackles across the dark horizon. I wait.
Soon the time between the thundering lengthens, and the intense rain begins to diminish. I hope that before long I will be able to see the way home. When the rain starts to abate, I put the wipers on low and turn the radio to a station that plays classics from the sixties. I increase the volume in an attempt to block out my uncomfortable thoughts. As I ease out of the parking lot, I read the other side of the sign: “Will you follow the road to experience God’s salvation and have eternal life? Join us Sundays 9 am and 11 am.”
I turn onto 15th Street, where pools of water continue to grow from rain that is falling, but more softly now. The light is red at the next intersection. I dial Kate on my cellphone.
“Hi Jack,” she says.
“Kate, I’m sorry. I should have paid more attention to you.”
The light changes to green. Bob Dylan sings,
Come gather ’round people
Wherever you roam
And admit that the waters
Around you have grown
And accept it that soon
You’ll be drenched to the bone
If your time to you is worth savin’
Then you better start swimmin’ or you’ll sink like a stone
For the times they are a-changin’
“I’m also responsible for the problems we had. Don’t blame it all on yourself. I’m sorry, Jack. . . .Hey, I like that song. It reminds me of when we were young.”
“Tell me about you, Kate.”