Saturday, August 20, 2005

The Presence of God

      The car door opened slowly, creaking with age. He wearily pivoted his legs around and placed both feet on the ground. For a moment he just sat there, unmoving. His hat was firmly settled on his head, his black shoes perfectly polished, his London Fog coat immaculate. But for what? Was it habit? Who was left to care? He had driven to the church on this cold November day to yet again collect sheet music for a funeral. How many friends had he buried? The march to death had started more than 20 years ago. One day it would be his funeral but who would be left to attend?
      He sighed and levered himself out of the driver’s seat. He fumbled with the keys for a moment and shut the car door. He labored along the walkway to the church’s front door, each step causing a crunch in the gravel. As he began to climb the steps to the door, two other cars came into the church’s gravel parking lot – Mrs. Johnson’s old Cadillac and from the other direction a pickup truck zoomed in, spraying the side of the old white frame building with loose rock. Loud pulsing country music blared from a speaker mounted in the bed of the truck. A large confederate flag flapped on a pole mounted on the back bumper. A half dozen youth dressed in plaid shirts with the sleeves cut off tumbled out of the truck -- each drinking beer.
      “Hey, look who’s here!”
      “Whatcha doing here, you old pervert?”
      “Hey, Faggot!”
      “Hey, let’s call Fred Phelps!”
      They hooted with laughter, drunk enough to fall over each other. He fumbled with the keys a little faster. Was it not bad enough that most of his friends had died? Was it not bad enough that he was going to die? And die alone? Allen had died almost 10 years earlier. He had not had the comfort of companionship for such a long time – there was no one left to talk to. And the community had been talking. There were Sundays that he could feel the hostility from the congregation – the congregation he had been a member of his whole life. The congregation that had sung to his music for more than 30 years. He almost had the door unlocked when the first bottle hit the front door. He looked at the spot on the red door with unbelief for a moment when the second bottle hit him in the small of the back. Soon he was being pelted with not only bottles but little rocks from the gravel parking lot.
      “Hey! What are you boys doing? Jimmy Brown! Does your mama know what you are doing?” Mrs. Johnson! he thought. She’s going to get pelted!
      “And Fred! What do you think you are doing? You should be ashamed of yourselves!” He watched as the kids began to grown quieter, shuffling their feet, not looking at Mrs. Johnson. Some of them faded into the growing night.
      “We were just having a little fun, Mrs. Johnson. We didn’t mean anything.”
      “When does drawing blood not mean anything, Vic Johnson?”
      He finally opened the door and bolted inside, abandoning the old woman outside with the punks. He couldn’t see clearly because of the blood in his eyes. He had lost the hat when the first rocks were thrown. He had always heard that head wounds bled bad, but damn! He stumbled into the sanctuary and fell into the front pew, right behind the piano. He tried weakly to stanch the flow of blood with his handkerchief. He sat in stunned silence for a few moments and then began to feel guilty and angry. Guilty about abandoning the old woman and angry at, well, everything.
      He heard the door open and close again. “Jacob, are you alright?” He felt her move beside him and he began to weep. He wept for Allen and for himself. He wept for John who died just 2 hours ago, alone because his church and his family abandoned him. He wept for Jimmy and Dennis. He wept for all the others. She enfolded him in her arthritic arms and she began to weep as well and then began to gently clean his cut with a towel.
      “Mrs. Johnson, you can’t get near me! It’s spread through blood!”
      “Hush! I know, I was a nurse. It doesn’t matter anyway.”
      He realized that there was a lot blood on her skirt – more than just his.
      “Oh, I stopped to bandage Vic’s hand. He cut himself on one of the bottles. I was on the altar guild when he was baptized. I drew the water for the font. I couldn’t let him bleed, could I?”
      “You stopped to help THEM?” he asked with disbelief.
      “Jacob.” She stopped. “Jacob… Yes I did. I had him in VBS, too. What he and those others did was evil, but…I couldn’t let him bleed.”
      She closed the wound on his forehead with a Band-Aid. They sat there for a moment. She said, “It’s time to go home.”
      He said, “Just a minute.” He got up and rummaged around in the filing cabinet behind the piano for a moment and pulled out the sheet music for Pia Jesu. It was what John had wanted.
      They left the little building together. As he opened the front door, he heard the skrich sound of a broom and saw a flash of denim. A boy with dark curls crushed under a watchcap was sweeping up the glass. Startled, he dropped the broom and started to run down the road. “Vic,” cried out Mrs. Johnson, “Let me take you home!”
      The boy stopped for a moment and Jacob saw a white bandage and the brilliant blue of the boy’s eyes before he began to run again. Jacob never realized that Vic was so much like a wounded bird – so skittish and frightened.
      “You know his father beats him, don’t you?” said Mrs. Johnson.
      “Your son?”
      “Yes.” They were quiet for a moment. He looked down at her eyes as they filled with tears. She patted his arm.
      “Let’s go to my home and I’ll fix you some dinner,” she said. She turned and locked up the church. Pia Jesu domine, dona eis requiem...

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