He’d dreamt about dying for so long that one night it finally happened. And then the next morning he woke up.
It’s not clear, now that we’re talking about it, whether he had changed. He looked the same in the mirror, to himself. He was still losing his hair, appearing to have a full head, but the comb felt and revealed the thinning, the increased shine of naked scalp beneath. In the mirror he saw the face and upper body of his familiar image, in his late 50’s, only a slight paunch in the gut, medium height. He could have been a good spy, common features, largely nondescript.
The dream, if that is what it was, was very definitive. He had ceased to be, and in doing so he had missed the bright light at the end of the tunnel. He also missed the tunnel. There was the remarkable presence of nothing. Nothing until his alarm went off at 5:30 a.m..
It was his busiest workday and it was the third Sunday in August, which meant in this part of the country that school would be starting in about another two weeks. When he looked out the window, there was only the first sigh of morning light in the East. Two months earlier at the start of summer the sun would have been in its full glory, the golden light hitting the tops of the trees in his backyard.
A couple of days in the past week had been unusually cool and he had noticed a few leaves on the ground here and there, crumpled brown, shriveled to a dry crisp, victims of some early weakness. But it was still summer, and attendance would remain a little low probably till just past Labor Day. He had arisen but not yet descended into the kitchen. For the moment he simply stood by the bedroom window. Typically there would be very little movement out in the street, now and then an early jogger, and the neighbor three doors down walking the dog that had the limp.
He looked over at the bed and saw that his wife was still sound asleep. Her face four inches from the open book that she would swear later she had read for much of the night. Soon she would rise again too. Maybe he was waiting to shake off the color of the dream, or the absence of color. He couldn’t say it felt like a wet blanket or had any semblance to the grim reaper. How does one describe the experience of no-thing?
For the moment it was as if Elvis had left the building, again, and he could taste the surprise, the disappointment in this act of being left behind. He was keeping this in his heart, he had not yet confided to his wife, which is to say that he had not yet confided to a single soul. He had not told her how he was deliberately keeping himself away from some edge, fearful of actually leaning over and looking down into it.
Maybe his mother’s warning so many years ago about attending a public university had finally come true. Her fear was that he would lose his Faith. Back then, and for a very short time, he had been a drama major. The family persuaded him that there wasn’t a secure future in this line of work. He had his own doubts about the long term effect of changing characters and playing with such repetitious intensity. Make believe. Ministry seemed like a more secure role.
There are these blessings in the small and immediate things, and he was thankful when the coffee finished brewing. He would thoughtfully pour the remainder of the pot into the large thermos so it would stay fresh for his wife.
Today’s sermon was no more than partially written, and he wasn’t all that sure that he liked the direction it was going. Like the days of not having finished homework until the morning of the class, a tinge of dread in the pit of his stomach. Each week this was getting to be an issue and since Thursday past, his experience more than ever was that he wrote the real message as a major subtext, if anyone could divine the meaning.
He’d actually misspoken last week, and got quite a ribbing afterward at the social hour. His sermon had started, “In the Beginning was the Void”, meaning to say “Word”, and he neatly covered it over by riffing about God creating, but not like the story Creationists tell. Close encounter of the second kind with Helen Rafferty in her usual place fifth pew on the south side of the main aisle, his retired English teacher critic, who was getting so weary of taking him to task for his slips that he imagined she was about to ask him whether he was feeling alright. He did, and did not, want her to ask him. He was not sure there would be any going back, if he were to admit to his doubts. And the damn thing was, pardon his French, that he had this flock to tend to. It wasn’t as if he was just getting ready this morning to go off and sell insurance or trade stocks and bonds.
A nine second segment of a well known slice of Bach. His phone is ringing.
“Harry?” the voice inquires, as if he might be someone other than himself.
He scans for voice recognition even as his lips assist him in answering, “yes, good morning.”
“Good morning,” she answers, a little surprised with the reminder, it was after all barely 6am. “I’m sorry,” she says “calling this early.”
“Yes,” he says, unequivocally. Now simply waiting for the next few words that she might speak.
Harry knows this about himself: he is not one of those pastors who rescues people in distress. In fact, when someone signals that they are in trouble, he is typically troubled by the strong instinctive pull he feels to back up, establish some line of fortification. This isn’t the way he is supposed to be reacting. And while she may have been figuring out what to say next, he finds himself thinking about the informality he has encouraged in his little congregation. They don’t say “Pastor”, certainly not “Father” and not even cowboy “Preach”.
“Harry, I’m in some sort of trouble.”
Join the club.
“I…I don’t quite know where to start.”
A name would be nice.
“He did it again, the bastard.”
“It’s not your fault.”
“No, I mean, I’m having trouble placing the voice with the name.”
A hesitation, dead air time. “This is Trixie!” and she isn’t pleased, he should know better.
For the life of him he cannot think who this is, he doesn’t know a single Trixie, or a married one, for that matter.
“Anyway,” even more disgusted, “he’s seeing that whore again, and I am telling you that I have finally had it.”
Harry looks out the kitchen window, reminding himself that it is still Sunday morning, and what looks to be a beautiful late summer day is dawning, light suffusing every corner of his well tended back yard retreat of mixed lawn and garden. He would like to take his coffee and just walk outside for a few minutes. This caller’s emotional pain sounds to have flooded the more reasonable parts of her brain. He doesn’t want to be standing here holding the phone in one hand and a coffee-less cup in the other.
“If I get my hands on that bitch, there’s no telling what I might do. But it’s really him, you know what I mean, it’s him I’m mad at, she’s just being a woman, I get her. He should know better.” She stops, like a person who has been walking swiftly down a sidewalk who now suddenly turns around and says, “You know, are you feeling alright?” and he imagines this to be a potential punch that is swiftly followed by the upper cut comment “you just don’t sound like yourself.”
A thought occurs to Harry who is already wavering a bit on his feet, slowly now wending his way to the coffee pot. If he can just reach the corner where the coffee maker sits, orange light glowing. He takes a breath and says, “Let me back up and I don’t mean to be offensive, maybe it’s because I just got out of bed. I’m really having trouble remembering who you are.”
An even longer pause. When she speaks again, her voice has lowered by about a fifth of an octave, and she tentatively inquires, “Tell me I’m talking to Harry Ralston, Harry who works at Empire Machine, we met a couple weeks ago at Frazzles Grill over by Winton Road?
“Ma’am,” he says, wondering how to exactly break the news, whether to put on his official collar, or hat. He decides to say simply, rather Biblically, “I am not the one you seek.”
Hesitation again. “You pig!”, she says, before the line goes dead.
Harry stands still for a moment a mere three feet from the coffee maker. The hand holding the cup begins to shake, as if the cup is trying to remind him how it longs to be filled with the dark warm brew. He has two nearly simultaneous thoughts: the first is to run an instant replay and see how he might have handled the call differently. The second is to hear, curiously enough in the accent of a Brit, the thought: what the bloody hell was that all about, eh?
With perfect timing, he hears the slippered step of his wife’s approach, coming down the stairs. Wife, near constant companion, she who is draped in the kimono their oldest daughter bought while on a holiday jaunt to Japan. Hair is slightly askew, understandably. She reaches in the cupboard for her own cup, says, “did the phone ring?”
“Who was it?”
She fills her cup, takes a sip, looks upward at him as she takes in a second sip along with this piece of information.
“Well,” she says smoothly, “and what did Trixie want?”
“Wants Harry to stop whoring around.”
“Good girl, Trixie.”
“That’s what I thought.”
“Did she tell him to finish writing the sermon, remind him that the service takes place at 10 am?”
“Honestly,” he says, “she didn’t tell him that.”
It’s 9am and he will be leaving for the church in about 20 minutes. He has a seven minute commute, on foot. He is out in his garden. It has been a good year for the peppers, not so good for the tomatoes, bad year for the zucchini squash, of all things.
He is going to try something new, he is going to wing it, mostly. He can rely on some basic notes, bullet points. He checked his homily sources again and today it is mustard seed day. He got some ideas from Alphonse The Founder, fourth century, lived near Cyprus. He would like to personally thank Al. If he were a true believer, he could, right here in his garden. What he believes in. The presence of the sunshine as it comes around the side of the house this time of year, the remarkable steadiness of his spouse, the pleasure he can take in not having to drive to work this morning.
His eye catches on a small corner of disorder over by the fence, the place where he put in the beans last year. He steps over to the spot, sees that something had gotten a piece of his produce, leaving behind two of them here on the ground, half chewed, red inner wetness and little white specks of torn open tomato. Several seeds spilled on the earth, destined to be eaten by birds, likely, and then where to from there? Taken aloft as they are ingested, flights of fancy.
It is a very small gathering on this warm summer morning, and even his wife is not in attendance due to a conflict in her schedule. One of the church elders opens the windows. The hymn before the sermon is rounding the bend for the fourth and final stanza. He is thinking about how they don’t use pulpits anymore. The preacher is free to walk around now, work the crowd if there were a crowd to work. He will speak not ex cathedra but off the cuff, shoot from the hip, minus the cowboy hat.
Small group but Helen Rafferty, Helen the Constant, is in her usual place, and he hopes that she isn’t getting a notebook out of her purse at this moment, as she seems to be settling in for another well observed assessment, now raising her head, and now her eyebrows, wondering what his hesitation is all about, what now? And he recognizes that he has been essentially staring at her, as if waiting for her to give him his opening lines. He detects a mini-wave of restless arm and foot shuffling out in the pews, the pews that are so nearby.
When he looks down at his text, he sees four or five bullet points, and somewhat to his amazement sees that it is his to-do list for the afternoon, underlying the importance of buying a gallon of low fat milk at Wegmans, then running over to Home Depot for a small metal flange to fix the edge of the garage gutter.
He looks up at the assembled faithful, sees that Helen does indeed have a notebook and pen in hand. He takes a deep breath.
There is a loud noise out in the street, a car seems to backfire, but it is merely the vibrating super bass of another soon-to-be-deaf driver. The car seems to have parked just outside the church door, not moving. There is a loud brace of static as if moving from one radio station to the next. The car out front with the gigantic audio system sends him this message, it is unmistakably James Brown, James really grooving:
I Feel Good
As the music continues, a couple of younger members of the parish turn to look as if with x-ray vision out through the church door. The car moves away slowly.
Harry looks up from his chore list text. There are a few waves of energy left, vibrating back and forth between the sides of the church, and the front to the back, and he wants to catch one of them before they fade. Memories and history and the events of a generation come together in a specific moment, swirl around him in a circle.
Harry pronounces “Amen.”. Helen seems to be looking at him now, and not her apparent notes. That’s good. That’s also no longer so important.
Mustard seed. Very small things that hold very large promise.
“Good morning!” he says uncharacteristically.
“Good morning,” they answer, only partially as an automatic response.
“I had a dream,” he begins. He looks out at the faces of his small faith community. Bless their mainstream Protestant hearts, by and large bright, educated and liberal in the majority.
“Martin Luther King said ‘I have a dream’, of course, but for me it was ‘had’.” He looks down at his notes. Third bullet point is a reminder to pick up more dog food at the big pet supply store.
“What I can tell you is that…..”. He looks down again. Fourth bullet point is to check out the sale at the auto supply chain store for odds and ends, window cleaner, 10-W40 motor oil.
“The Buddhists,” he restarts, “say that dying is like waking up from a dream. It is a moment of realizing that much of what we thought was real was only an illusion.”
They look at him so intently. Some of them still put their trust in him, some of them are really hungry for some news, preferably that all will end well, even better that all will not end, maybe even that the stock market will stabilize for savvy long term investors.
He has about 60 seconds left to make a play for keeping their attention. He, like them, swimming in the world of apparent multi-tasking, awash in multiple screens when monitors reboot with competing bids for attention, a gluttony of information.
He has to bridge the gap from here to the mustard seed, and he senses that he is on some giant land form, a dry iceberg that is drifting away from the mainland. Some of them may go with him, some may want to jump though it may be too late.
So this is what standing on the edge is like. He looks down again but there are no more bullet points.
There is a rumbling, grumbling, distant but fast approaching moment coming right at him, at all of them. He thinks that he alone hears its approach, then sees that others are once again turning in their pews and looking at one another, and there is one precise, surgically incised instant when it would seem that all hell could break loose…which ends with the recognition that the driver has returned, parked outside and is now honking his horn, oblivious that this is a doorbell with consequences beyond reaching the intended.
“The Prodigal Son has returned”, he nearly shouts. He is actually looking over the edge now. He is still standing. They are still sitting. Time is still passing in this dimension.
“Well,” he says, shifting his stance, “so if the Buddhists are correct, here we are, sharing the illusion.” He hesitates, “And if that is what we must do for now, I for one am glad that I can share it with you. We get to live in community with one another.”
The car honks its horn again, loudly, a few milliseconds longer this time. A celebratory razz, keeping him honest.
He gives up. He stops trying. It doesn’t hurt that the usher, Norm, retired county sheriff, is heading for the door to re-establish order.
“It is said that the mustard seed is the smallest of all the seeds. Insignificant, almost invisible. And what does this small speck produce?”
They don’t answer because he has never asked them a non-rhetorical question before.
“I’m asking,” as if holding up one of the seeds between his forefinger and thumb, “what does this tiny object produce?”
And the voice answers “A goodly size tree.” Helen’s voice. First car horns and now this.
“A goodly sized tree,” he says, joining her. “Oh these smallest and seemingly insignificant things.”
He waits for a moment, expecting the car’s horn to make its final judgment. He hears instead Norm’s voice, a voice in retirement but still able after years of experience to marshall cooperation.
“And so we work with what we have been given.”
This is a start.
Where he goes from here will be a matter of faith.
“It’s up to us, folks.” Some of them do look expectantly at him. Fully pregnant, resplendent with hope.
Something more should happen now, right? Something more.
He remembers Jesus appearing out on the rough waters of the sea, walking toward the apostles’ boat, they thought he was a ghost. Good old Peter calls out, Jesus invites him to step out of the boat and walk across the water toward him.
Oh my god, not now.
“So, we’re it, but we can’t do this by ourselves.”
He hears some murmur of assent.
“I’m afraid,” says the familiar voice, and several of the parishioners look over in her direction, clearly alarmed. “I’m not sure I always…have faith.”
Harry looks right at Helen. “I’m with you.” He looks down again at the blank space below his list of chores, and when he lifts his voice he says, “Even if we have faith, even if we don’t have faith…we need help.” Do we ever. “None of us can do this alone. That’s,” he says, looking around at each member of this flock, “that’s why we’re here. Together. It means something.”
“Yes it does,” says Norm suddenly, having resettled his large frame in the pew next to his wife. Norm’s wife quickly turns in her husband’s direction. He is not known for being spontaneous, taking risks in public. He can tell his wife is grinning at him. He enjoys the moment.
“What does the music say?” Harry asks.
Helen has the sense that she should not reach for the hymnal.
“Mr. Brown,” Harry says triumphantly. “I feel good!” as he begins to hum the melody.
Heads are shaking, yes, and it is not Harry who concludes, “Amen!”