#008 – The Mayor Caulfield

Four days after Christmas, the mayor of Kinnaston looked from the south-facing window of his office and saw a semi-trailer truck sitting at the top of the bluff. The truck looked out over the edge, testing the sight of the sweeps and pitch of the switchback road beneath it, and seemed to decide against descending it. Made sense to the mayor. Even from the window, he could see sheens of ice draped over the road with mounds of snow and drifts collected at the elbows of the turns.

Wintry Guardrail

It wasn’t the first time the mayor had ever seen a truck up there like that. Saul Greenberg before had met shipments of goods up there that had come in for his hardware store, and he’d enlist some of the local boys to drive up the bluff and bring his goods back down. He’d asked the mayor a time or two, who had helped as much as he could. They would make a day out of it sometimes, driving up and down and up and down until the goods were home, and they’d order some food and drinks from the Bluebuckle Café or the Piazza Pizzeria or the Tall Man Garden, and they’d tell the stories the mayor didn’t get to hear when people remembered that he was the mayor and he’d laugh with them and do his best to forget what he’d heard when he woke the following day.

The mayor sat in front of his desk, dressed for the day in a hooded sweatshirt and jeans and his favorite pair of moccasins. The week between Christmas and New Years Day was his favorite week of the year. No cars in the parking lot but his. No bodies in his office but his. The door between his office and the front office was open as well as the door beyond it to the hallway. From his desk, he could see three blue lockers set into a brick wall, peppered with posters and fliers.

He ran a hand through his white beard, a tangle of unorthodox growth he usually grew for this time of year. At times, the town called upon him to serve as Santa Claus for the local Christmas parties. He’d been thankful that he’d grown it this year since the Morrison’s and the Toomer’s had called upon him for their childrens’ holiday parties. And a favor from those two clans were worth ten from the normal citizen. But later that week, he’d roll into Good Tom’s Barber Shop and order the lather and the hot towel and enjoy the warmest, smoothest shave of his life.

The tips of his beard prickled against the stale air. From somewhere, the air moved and relief came with it. He loved sitting at his desk like that. He went to work.

On his desk, a folder of building permits that he’d be forced to reject lay next to his signature stamp and an inkpad. The town would celebrate New Years Eve this year with a frugal sensibility, and somewhere in his desk was the budget that he’d have to approve. Sheriff Powell requested an extension ladder for the police office, a building that had only one story and a basement, and the mayor would have to figure some strategy for disappointing the sheriff as kindly as possible. And his reelection was three or four months away. His self-compiled version of the Kinnaston phonebook lay in some drawer in his assistant Anna’s office, and he’d personally call each number on the list before early April.

Away from his work, he glanced back to the window to the truck on the bluff. Still there, it’s engine running. Tufts of smoke pluming from the exhaust stack. The clouds in the sky above it had been hewn. New daylight purging through the brumous world.

And then the truck probed the road, rolling forward a few feet. It stopped. Then, a few feet more.

“Oh no he isn’t!” the mayor whispered.

The truck drove a few yards down the first incline of the switchback, stopped up its wheel and slid a good yard before catching on the road.

“Oh no he isn’t!” the mayor yelled.

He picked up the receiver to his phone and rifled a series of numbers. No answer.

He rang the numbers again. Three tones later, the sheriff answered. “Not now, Anna,” he said. “Not in any mood for games today.”

“This is the Mayor Caulfield, Sheriff.”

A pause. “Oh, Mr. Mayor, sir! I’m so sorry, sir. Thought Anna was giving me a task to do. So sorry. Hoping for a quiet day today, it being the holiday season.”

“Terribly sorry to inconvenience you, Sheriff,” he said, throating his authority, “but some halfwit is driving a semi down the bluff.”

“A what now?”

“A semi, Sheriff. A truck. Driving down the road.”

“A semi truck? I don’t think he’ll make it, Mr. Mayor. It’s ice all the way down. We’ll have to send him right back up.”

“Yes,” Mayor Caulfield said, shooting a sigh into the phone receiver. “You’ll have to tell him. Get over there right now.”

“Well, I’m on my way, but I’m on the north side and the driving conditions aren’t too good over here and the plows been broke since a week before Christmas, and you know that, so I’ll have to come the long way round.”

The mayor rubbed the bridge of nose. After a few moments, the sheriff said, “You’re closer, Mr. Mayor. I’m ten minutes away, at least.”

The mayor slammed the phone down on the receiver and rolled his wheelchair out from behind his desk and around it and through the door to the front office. His coat hung from the coat tree, but he passed it and rode out into the hallway.

He bore down upon the wheels of his chair, flying down the hall of lockers and classrooms. Over him hung a banner with the words: Come on Home, Kinnaston Kings! Left there from a month before. There were no lights in the hallway except for the raw sunlight cutting through the classroom windows at long slants.

Dark School Hallway

A red and blue VW bus sat in the parking lot behind two broad tracks reaching all the way to the street and before two thin tracks cutting onto the sidewalk around the bike rack and up to the front door. On each of the wheels of the van, a set of chains. The mayor retraced his tracks from the front door and around the bike rack, careful to drop down from the street to the lot without throwing himself forward. At the van, he reached forward from his seat and pulled the two sidedoors ajar and they opened unto him like the double doors.

Echoes of an engine kicking against the clutch fell into the valley from the bluff. He looked and saw the truck, having stopped at the topmost elbow of the switchback road. From that distance, he could not see the driver but he knew him to be a fool all the same. But at least he had stopped.

“Thank God,” he said. “Just stay there and we’ll get you.”

After a few sputters and drops from the engine, it roared anew.

“Don’t you dare,” the mayor muttered.

Somehow, the truck backed up the slope and then rocked forward at a sharper angle until it found the guardrail, then backed up again and cut an even sharper angle. The mayor watched it with his hands clasping his armrests and his head shaking. Eventually, the cab of the truck found an angle clearing the turn, and as it descended, the trailer whipped around the elbow behind it, losing a wheel from the ground and then finding it again and the mayor’s heart jumping at the sight of it.

“You fool,” he whispered. Behind the van’s double sidedoors, a thick sheet of metal hid the van’s insides like the drawbridge of a castle keep. Grasping the side of it, he released a catch that sent the bridge down on a block and tackle system. He rolled back and watched the ramp float down to the snow-covered lot.

With hard breaths, he drove himself up the incline. When he found the floor of the van, he paused to steady his heart. Against the side double doors, four braces of metal formed a simple frame, with a nylon rope fed through the brace on his near hand with a toggle attached to the end. He spun around on the van floor and fastened the brakes on his chair, and with the toggle in his hand, he tugged against it with rowing heaves. The pulleys flicked against the brace and did their work, taking the slack of the rope as he pulled, but he still felt the weight of it.

As the ramp clicked back into place, he sagged in his chair and held his chest. Instinctively, he checked the pulse on his left hand. Quick bolts of blood running their circuit, perhaps on some pursuit. He checked through the windshield, but could not yet see the semi on its descent, which he knew should have comforted him but knotted him instead. Through sharp thickets, his blood ran. It was a good few minutes before he managed to slow his pulse.

The van had been hollowed out, with no seats except for a bench in the far back of the van bearing a few lengths of nylon rope and an underweight toolbox. He rolled himself forward to the steering wheel, with its three bars erected before him at odd angles. In his chair, he shifted to his left, the armrest in his side, so that he could fish the keys from his pocket. With his left hand, he pumped the brake handle, and with his right he released the clutch. He turned over the ignition but choked it off when his hand slipped.

Old Wheelchair

Framed in the windowglass, the semi had stopped at the fourth elbow of the road, the cab of the truck jammed at a disgusting slant. The wheels of the truck couldn’t find any grip on the road, shearing the valley with their caterwauls, and the trailer was half leaning against the guardrail. Some sixty to seventy feet beneath that turn, the mayor knew, were a series of cabins and sheds set against the rock wall of the cliff. Their families would be there this time of year.

After a few more squeals from the cab wheels, the truck stopped on the bluff, and the mayor whispered his thanks. Fumbling with his levers again, he tried the engine again and got it to catch. It shivered to life. He levered the van into reverse and swung it around in the parking lot, and then rocked it into first gear and onto Buchanan Avenue. He managed to get the van to third gear until the road ended in a tee at Tenth Street, where he cut his van on a harsh left turn, and despite the chains, the tires still slid. At the intersection, he glimpsed Mrs. Baak and her daughter through the windshield of her Mercedes, both of them with their hands thrown up as if to brace for an impact. His van drifted at least five feet in front of them, but he held his breath anyway as he cleared them.

Riding east on Tenth, the switchback road obscured the sky and rose over him like a foreign god. There were no cars on Tenth, so he chanced the fourth gear and wished immediately he hadn’t when the gearbox protested. Somewhere behind him, the gears squealed awkwardly against the rear axle.

At Fornier Avenue, Orie Wetterman’s truck clogged the road. The mayor trumpeted his car horn. Like a stolid pioneer, Orie would not budge from his course, straddling down the center of the road. “Move, Orie! Now’s no time for the speed limit!” he shouted at his dashboard as he punched his horn.

When Orie had had enough, he pulled his truck to the side, throwing up his arms in frustration and waving angrily as the mayor streaked past him. As Tenth Street met the Main Boulevard, with the market at the corner, he swung the van to the far left of the road and threw the wheel hard clockwise to cut the corner. But he oversteered and the backend hooked around and spun him outward like a carnival cyclorama and the brakes of his wheelchair gave and he flew forward and his face smashed against the steering wheel as the gravity threw him with its fickle grin winking and the buckshot to the side and glass around him and he was revolving slowly inward and the cosmos were imploding into him. He felt it in his gut, the concavity of unfound districts at the corners of God’s creation, and it sickened him.

The Fair Attractions

He lifted his head from the steering wheel. To his right, a small crowd stood in front of the market with their hands all covering their mouths. Before him, the bullied side of a jeep, the passenger door lying helpless on the snow amidst an augury of broken glass and plastic. Through the mess, a red-haired young woman in a deep green coat stared at him. She pointed. Up at the switchback road.

He looked up. He could not see the truck, but he could hear its engine and the crunchslip of its tires on the ice. Back to her, he looked. It was Aine Duffy.

He nodded to her. His engine still rumbled at his back. He pulled down on the gas and kept her gaze as he passed her and turned up onto the boulevard. “Later,” he said. And he allowed himself a chuckle. “Of all people,” he said.

The mayor rounded the first turn of the switchback and the second slowly, though he was in fourth gear and the engine was fighting. The turns were barely wide enough for his van to clear them comfortably. “It’s impossible,” the mayor said. The semi had finally managed around the fourth turn from the top when the mayor reached him. With his eyes fixed on the rearview mirrors, the trucker was not looking at him. The mayor sat at the bottom of the third turn and hammered his carhorn.

The trucker snapped forward and the cab suddenly shot left against the cliff and the trailer buckled behind it and slid a few yards forward and wedged itself between the cliff and the guardrail. “Good. You’re stuck,” the mayor said.

He urged his van up the road toward the truck. When he reached it, he fixed in the handbrake and rolled himself away from the steering wheel and over to the passenger side. He brought down the window. The passenger window of the truck dropped down, and a man dressed in overalls and a leather jacket and a baseball cap hung out the window and looked down at him.

“Is this the road to Kinnaston?” the trucker asked.

“It is, you delinquent!” the mayor said.

“What?” the trucker asked, confused.

“What in God’s name are you doing?” the mayor shouted up to the trucker.  “As the mayor of this town, I do order you to stop this truck immediately and wait until the sheriff arrives!”

“Can’t stop now,” the trucker said, his jaw loose. “I gotta get down this mountain and unload. I’m four days late as it is, and I’ve got nine more trucks coming behind me.”

“Excuse me? Did you say nine more?”

“I did.”

“There’s ten of you?”

“Yessir. And they’re on my heels.”

“Well they’re not coming down here, I promise you!”

“Don’t think that’s up to us. I was told to come down. That’s why they called me.”

“Who called you? Who’s the delivery for?”

He disappeared for a second and reappeared with a clipboard. “People of Kinnaston, the order says.”

“How can that be?” the mayor asked, his cheeks flush. “I am the mayor of the people of Kinnaston. I think that I would be informed.”

“Well I guess we’re just a pair of chowders yelling at each other, then.”

“Listen,” the mayor said, “your devil-may-care attitude might win you affection in the outside world, but it will gain you nothing here! We were enjoying a perfectly wonderful day until you came along and endangered it all!”

“Endangered? I wouldn’t put it like that. Your cargo is in good hands.”

“Not my cargo! And no, what you are attempting has put lives in jeopardy.”

“I’m an expert at this kind of thing,” he said. “Just get out of my way, and I’ll bring the truck on down.”

“You will not! The sheriff is on his way. You will await his arrival.”

“I’m coming in, mister. You gotta let me.”

“I am not. I am sending you away.”

“We’ll see,” the trucker said and disappeared from the window. The truck revved anew, and the wheels turned on the ice to prepare the next maneuver. Jackknifed, the coupling between the cab and the trailer stuck out like a steeple. “We’ll see where you’ll go without your load,” he said.

He wheeled himself over to the ramp and the sidedoors. Unfixing a latch, he unfastened the lock on the doors and opened the doors wide to let the ramp down. When it landed, he launched himself down it.

The Mayor Caulfield felt his wheel slip from the ramp and find open air beneath, and he felt the chair slam sideways on the ice. And he felt the inward rotation, pulling him down. But nothing else beyond it.

Standard

#007 – Remember the Sabbath and Keep It Holy

By the time Danielle had reached the stonewalk leading up to the Our Savior Emmanuel Lutheran Church, she had already planned most of her exodus. She would set the three mammoth boxes in her arms down on some table, smile at a few of the old ladies in that musty church basement while avoiding any significant discussions, wait for her mother to become absorbed into the festivities, and then run for it. She knew neither Ruby Ericksson nor Brandon Aaron (and she didn’t know anyone from their families either!), so she didn’t think it unreasonable that she’d skip their wedding shower.

But her mother disagreed. And despite the vehement debate they’d had at home just an hour before her arrival on that stonewalk and the vicious words they’d spoken to each other on the way, her mother nonetheless walked solemnly up to the front door of the church like a highborn monarch, bearing no sign of their quarrel. Danielle knew that her frustration still marred her face. Her mother had made plenty of remarks to that effect on their walk to the church. “Stop scrunching your forehead like that,” her mother had said. “You’ll have wrinkles there for the rest of your life.”

“I hate you,” Danielle had whispered under breath, but just enough that her mother could make it out.

The last time Danielle had entered the Our Savior Emmanuel Lutheran Church was for the funeral of her grandfather.  She had been nine years old, not quite half her life ago.  She didn’t remember much from inside the old, stodgy building, but she did remember her thankfulness that she didn’t have to visit it once a week.  In fact, she often loudly told her classmates how wonderful it was to sleep in on a Sunday morning and lounge around, reading a book or watching a rerun or merely strolling around the vacant Kinnaston streets while everyone was at service.

She once mused to herself that the opportune time to rob the bank would be on a Sunday morning in Kinnaston.  None would be there to stop her.  And even if the alarm sounded, none would dare leave in the middle of the service to stop her, for fear of potential damnation.

So, she planned, once she would escape, she’d hide out in the woods until Sunday morning.  And on Sunday morning, she’d rob the bank.  And on the following Monday, her mother would be forced to reluctantly bail her from prison.  And then on Tuesday, she’d accost her mother and push her to the breaking point and demand for emancipation.  And finally on Wednesday, she’d have her freedom and her wealth and the rest of her life ahead of her.

This seemed to her a good plan.

“Hurry up, Danielle,” her mother said, having reached the front door of the church. It swung with an ugly groan.

But Danielle had to stop on the walkway as the middle box in her load began to bend under the weight of the top box and sag off to the side. To her horror, the middle collapsed entirely, and the present on top slid down the incline, so that Danielle had to sweep her arms sideways to catch it and right it again. When she finally found balance, the top box had made a serious divot in the middle one. No doubt, her mother would blame her for that.

“Mom, your stupid box just – ” she began, but no one was outside when she looked up. Apparently, her mother had gone inside. Alone in the churchyard, she stood, analyzing seriously the level of punishment she’d receive if she just went home. One week of house arrest? Two weeks? Maybe even the dreaded month? She wasn’t built to handle that kind of jail time.

Snowy Church 2

The carillon bells in the steeple overhead chimed the simple tones of O Little Town of Bethlehem. Her breath fogged before her. An itch crept at the stocking of her left foot just above her ankle. She hated wearing those things.  She hated the dresses her mother bought for her, and the earrings she’d practically stabbed through her earlobes. She hated the black patent shoes choking her feet. She hated the makeup her mother had caked onto her face. She hated going to church.

She didn’t like the smell of the building, much less its demeanor. The peeling white paint on the façade of the building and the bowing boards reminded her of a horror movie. The steeple rose from the church like a hangnail, picking at the horizon with its point. The sky was full grey, the sun lost in its wandering, and yet somehow the building cast a shadow over her.

Chills skulked down her back. The affliction of the ruined presents in her arms. The steeple overhead, seemingly pointing down upon her. She wanted to be elsewhere. Any punishment her mother could devise failed to threaten her.

With a turn, she walked back the way she came. As she got to street, a voice called out to her, “Was that you knocking?”

She turned back to the church. A young man in a red sweater and khaki pants and a full white collar was leaning against the doorjamb, a man she knew to be Pastor James. She shook her head vigorously.

“Danielle,” he said, “I just passed by your mother. She’s probably looking for you.”

She stood blank white on the sidewalk. The church now seemed to cast a darker shadow over her.

“Come inside,” he said, beckoning her with a wave. “It’s freezing out here.”

She measured the time it might take her to drop the presents right there on the sidewalk, dash for home, pack a suitcase and make it to the woods before her mother could assemble a search party. She would not acquiesce to her mother’s justice like a little lamb. She’d fight to the bitter end. But at that moment, she stood paralyzed in the afternoon chill.

“You’re not in trouble,” he said. “I didn’t want to come to church on a Saturday either. But if your mother interrogates me about seeing you, I don’t think I could lie to her.”

She snickered. “Why?” she asked, invective. “Would that make you a bad pastor?”

“I wasn’t thinking that,” he said, after laughing. “I was thinking that your mom can be a scary lady.”

Danielle stopped herself from gasping. “My mom isn’t as tough as people think. She’s a pushover really.”

“Maybe so,” he said, shivering and rubbing his arms. “But I’d much rather avoid decapitation if it’s all the same to you.”

“I don’t want to go to a stupid wedding shower,” she said, huffing. The weight of the presents leaned into her arms.

“Hey, I’m not your parent. I won’t make you do anything you don’t want to,” he said. “But I know your mom, and she nearly took my head off coming through the door, so I think it’s best for your safety and for the peace of Kinnaston that you don’t go tearing off into the wilderness.” Then, his voice went low. “It’s cold out here,” he said. “Come inside.”

She looked out to the road, dusted over with snow and a bit of soot. The street went on for a few blocks, ending with the frontwoods, the houses framing the woods on either side. The path opened to her like the Red Sea, ushering her forward. She looked back to the pastor and saw a pharaoh. “I might rather die,” she said.

Then, something was different. She felt a bead of cold wetness slip down her nose and hang on the edge of her nostril. She shook her head, casting the moisture away. Then, a shot of cold on the crown of her head, followed by two more shots. Rain on the top of her ears.

The downpour came before she registered it, and soon it was everywhere and stinging. “You’ll catch your death!” she heard the pastor yell to her. “Hurry inside!”

With the presents still secured in her arms, she dashed for the church, the raindrops pelting her like darts. She closed her eyes to shield them and tripped, stumbling but finding the steps up to the church and soon the end of the rainfall. Her skin numbed against the warmth of the foyer. She kept her eyes closed.

“Follow me,” he said. His footsteps plunked on the thin carpet before her and she followed them with her eyes squeezed shut. She could still feel water in them. As she walked forward, she tried to open them but the cold had infected her eyelids and pushed against her eyeballs.

“You’re going to bump into that table,” he said, right as she bumped smack into it. She dropped the presents out of surprise.

Church Pew

“That’s alright,” he said, clearly reining his amusement. “Just drop them anywhere.”

“I can’t see!” she shouted.

“Here,” he said, “Take this.”

She reached out her hand and felt a plush towel. She lifted it to her face and wiped the rainwater from it. She daubed her eyes and opened them, finding the color of the room and then the room itself. She was standing at the front of the sanctuary, a squat room with two lines of pews and an aisle down the middle of it. It was only the second time she had ever been in this room.

She stood in front of a wooden table, carved from red cedar. Vines and leaves and flower petals had been fashioned down the legs of the table.  At the two front corners, etched into the wood were two symbols, one a capital “A” and the other an odd-looking horseshoe. Across the front was written: In Remembrance of Me. As if tables could remember. The three presents sat atop the table like guerillas.

“You’re soaked through, aren’t you?” the pastor asked.

The black woolen coat was plastered to her. She nodded.

He pointed to a door behind him at the front of the room. “You can change back there. On the hangers, you should find some robes. Feel free to use one until your coat dries. More towels back there if you need them. Take your time.”

She looked back to the table for a brief second, thinking that she should move the presents, but decided it didn’t matter. She walked into the small room offered her and closed the door behind her. At the far end of the room, a single dowel ran the length of the wall decorated with eight white robes on hangers. On a shelf above the wall, she found three more towels.

She pulled the coat from her shivering bones and let it drop to the floor with a splat. She pulled a towel from the shelf and dried off her arms and legs. She pulled her hair tie free and rang the water from her hair and wrapped the towel around her head like a turban. Her red dress was surprisingly dry, but she pulled off her now quite ruined leather shoes and her damp stockings and let them fall with the coat. The blue and brown tile floor underneath chilled her toes. She pulled one of the smaller robes from the hanger and pulled it over her head, letting it glide down to the floor. When she walked back to the door, the robe billowed out around her and flowed like she was some ghost. She certainly felt cold enough to be a ghost.

When she opened the door back to the sanctuary, the pastor had vanished. The three presents had been removed from the table and placed on the front pew. A beam of cedar ran down the center of the angled ceiling, with three spherical lights and two fans hanging from it. Settled into the two short sides of the room were three stained glass windows. In one of the windows, a company of men were crowded into a wooden boat, with one figure standing at the stern with his arms outstretched.

The laughter of middle-aged women resonated from beneath her. They were in the basement at the wedding shower, probably opening useless gifts and complaining about their spouses. She wondered why her mother hadn’t come to find her yet. Maybe she didn’t care. Maybe she was glad to have lost her. Didn’t matter to Danielle. If there weren’t a blizzardy monsoon outside, she’d be out past the frontwoods by now and into the hill country.

She kept telling herself just that until the pastor returned with a steaming mug in his hand and a plate of cookies. “Your mother says hi,” he said.

She gasped. “What did you tell her?” she asked.

“That you slipped outside and dropped the presents and then got caught in the rain. I apologized to her. That walkway can be slippery in the winter.” He offered her the mug and the plate, but she took neither.

“Why did you lie for me?”

He shrugged.

“Do I owe you now?”

“You owe me nothing,” he said. “Call it grace.”

“I don’t believe you,” she said, crinkling her nose. “People don’t lie for free.”

He set the mug and the plate down on the wooden table. He did not look at her as he said, “So what’s so bad about wedding showers?”

She didn’t answer him immediately but stared at him as he leaned against the wooden table. She looked over at the presents sitting on the front pew. “Why did you move my presents?”

He looked at the packages and then back to her. “Is there any gold in there?”

“What?” she asked, her face scrunching.

“How about frankincense? Or myrrh? Any of that?”

She folded her arms. “I don’t know what those are.”

He nodded, glancing over at her. He picked up the mug and the plate and offered it to her again. She refused a second time.

“Gold, frankincense and myrrh were the gifts that the wise men brought to the baby Jesus on Christmas,” he said.

“Not on Christmas,” she replied.

“What?”

“They didn’t give the gifts to him at Christmas. He wasn’t born at Christmas. He was probably born in the spring. Most Christians get that wrong.”

He chuckled. “You’re probably right,” he said. To the left of the wooden table was a black grand piano. The pastor pulled out the piano bench and sat down facing her.

“I know I’m right.”

He pulled up the sleeves of his sweater. “You’re a smart girl. It must be hard having your mother never listen to you,” he said.

Danielle stopped, her arms tightening in their cross. He was attacking her now. The pastor said nothing more but held her gaze, waiting for her reply. There wasn’t kindness in his eyes. But she didn’t know what she saw there. She did not like the manner of the pastor, how he asked his questions. It betrayed something of him, a weakness she saw in others her age.

She pressed him. “So why is it okay for you to put your dishes on this table but I can’t put my presents here?”

“Your presents are soaked with rainwater,” he said. “It would ruin the woodwork if I left them there.”

“It’s not like you’re using a coaster for that mug,” she said, pointing.

He made to get up, but she cut him off, striding over to the table and picking up the mug. Hot chocolate, still steaming, with a round dollop of whipped cream floating on top. She sipped at the mug, and felt the thick warmth roll down her throat. Tasted like a melted chocolate bar. She licked her lips and blushed. She didn’t expect it to be that good.

Communion Table

Nevertheless, she turned over the mug and let its dark liquid pour out onto the wooden table. The pastor flinched, causing Danielle to grin, but he did not get up. She tried to hold his stare, but he looked away. She picked up the pile of cookies and crumbled them in her hands and sprinkled them over the table. Bits of chocolate chips and cookie dough stuck to her fingers, and she flicked them to the table, clearing her hands of the debris.

The hot chocolate pooled around the cookie crumbs, like an ocean coagulating upon an island chain. To the pastor, she glared. By now, his weakness was obvious to her. He wouldn’t dare retaliate.

He got up, wordless, and went to the back room and came back with a towel. Danielle sat down on the pew and crossed her legs in satisfaction, her white robe pillowing in the air around her and framing her smirking face. He took the towel to the table in slow rotations, mopping up the hot chocolate and cookies. The white of the towel disappeared with each rotation. When the towel could hold no more, he went to the back room to get another towel and continued his work.

From where she sat, the hot chocolate had stained the table irrevocably. Good, she thought to herself. I’ve made my mark.

“Now, I bet you wish I hadn’t come in,” she said, spines in her throat.

He shook his head as he sat back down on the piano bench. “I don’t wish things like that,” he said.

“Yes, you do. Everyone does.”

“Not everyone.”

“Please,” she said, rolling her eyes. She kicked her bare feet from beneath the robe and let the coolness in the building chill her toes. “Your table wouldn’t be ruined if it wasn’t for me.”

“It’s not an issue,” he said. “It’s just a table.”

“I bet you hate me.”

He turned and looked at her. The same look in his eyes. No kindness. But something else.

“Don’t presume such a thing about me,” he said, his voice diving. “You don’t get to come into this church and ruin the eucharist table that Pastor Coutts spent five years of his life building, a table that’s served this church for fifty years, and then judge me for how I handle it.”

“Do you feel judged?”

The pastor paused. “Yes,” he said, sighing. “Yes, I feel judged.”

She leaned back in the pew, looking down her nose at him. “You want the truth? I don’t think you’re as good a person as you pretend.”

“You’re probably right,” he replied. He was unraveling. She continued to pull at the loose strings.

“I know I’m right,” she said, settling into herself. “You know how I know? Because no one’s good. Not deep down. We’re all sinners.”

“Everyone except for you, right?” His voice quavered.

“I’ve accepted that I’m a terrible person,” Danielle stated, her notes deliberate. This was a lecture for her. This pushover had much to learn, and she would speak to him from on high and show him the path to paradise. “When you do that, no one has any power over you. They can’t make you feel guilty, anymore, so they can’t do a thing to you. So you just live your life, and if you punch your way through people in the process, so be it. Everybody’s evil, anyway. We all have it coming.”

At that, he struck the piano with his fist. She felt the strike reverberate through the wood of the piano and the strings inside of it and through the air into her. He did not look at her as he shouted, “Enough!”

Danielle snickered in victory. His nature was emerging, that which she wanted to see. She’d pull it up through the waters if she had to. She opened her mouth to continue, but he cut her off, his voice a heavy whisper, “How is it that such a smart and beautiful girl could believe something so disgusting?”

A flash of irritation caught her in the chest. The pastor got up and walked back over to the table, rubbing at his eyes. She fought to reply, but the pastor shouted, “Get behind me, Satan!”

His body hung above the table, as if broken.

Danielle twisted in her seat and looked back to the foyer and considered leaving the church entirely. She had been pierced by his shout. But the gravity of the pew and of the robe pinned her. Pain unexpected in her side. She did not fear this man, but his untangling had leapt from her hands.

“You don’t know anything about me,” she said, calm.

“I know you,” he said, holding himself up from the table. The look on his face changed, of grim resolve. “I’ve known you since the bones of this earth were set upon the waters. You are a minion. My tormentor. You are a desecration of God’s good world.”

The pastor turned to her, his shoulders set not in threat but in submission. She wanted her mother here now, to defend her. His words were too close for her. She felt them upon her skin.

“So will you hear my confession?” he asked. “I have been waiting for you. I will tell you everything and then you will judge for me.”

She wanted to hear it, and yet she knew she shouldn’t. The stained glass window to her right bore an apple hanging from a branch with a serpent in the background watching it. The choice between knowledge and innocence. “Let me hear it,” she said.

He nodded and breathed deep. “For this purpose, you were sent to me,” he said. “To whom do you belong?”

She shook her head. “I don’t know.”

“You do know,” he said, turning to her. “You came here with purpose. To sabotage this house. You came disguised as a little girl I know from the town, and you came with three presents to mock the advent of this sacred holiday. But before I confess to you, tell me one thing. Why have you come to me like this from the abyss? What do you want from me?”

She was completely confused. “I don’t want anything.”

He scoffed. “That can’t possibly be true.”

“It’s true,” she said. “I don’t know why you’re talking like this!”

His head turned to one side, looking at her like an undiscovered wonder. “Why would you attack me, then? Why would you say the things that have been in my head? Why would you desecrate our eucharist table with such contempt? Why would you speak such evil?”

She looked down to her white robes and to her hands. So small. “I don’t know,” she said.

Extinguished Candle

He wavered, his hands gripping the table like he’d be pulled into the sky. Something in him subsided then, the edges of his face softening and the light finding his eyes. He let go of the table and sat down next to her on the pew. For a moment, he studied her silently. She winced under his gaze. “So, you really are Danielle,” the pastor said finally.

“I think so,” she said, now timid. “Who did you think I was?”

He shook his head and looked away, his shoulders turning with them. “I am so sorry,” he said. His hands were white on his kneecaps, faintly spotted.

“Why did you call me Satan?” she asked. “I know I can be a witch, but I didn’t think I did anything that bad.”

“It’s not you,” he said. “I thought you were someone else. I thought you were testing me.”

“Why would I test you? I don’t even really know you.”

He glanced sideways at her. “If you didn’t know me, then why would you ruin my table?”

She huffed. The cold, stagnant air of the sanctuary settled on her. “I don’t know. I just wanted you to yell at me, I think.”

“Why?”

She shrugged.

“Do you think you deserve to be punished?”

She considered it. “No, I don’t think so,” she murmured.

He wrung his hands. “We all deserve to be punished. For who are and for what we’ve done. For the things we wished to know. For the sleeping world we couldn’t let lie. For the hurt we’ve inflicted upon each other and upon ourselves. Do you believe this?”

“I’m not sure,” she said.

“You said earlier that we all have it coming,” he said. “We do. I have it coming. As do you. I thought it came for me today. Maybe it still will. But for the moment, it waits. And that is grace.”

“I don’t want to be punished.”

“Then ask for forgiveness.”

“Forgiveness? From who?”

“From everyone. Always.”

“Have you asked for forgiveness?”

“Once,” he said. “And I hoped that once would be good enough.”

“Was it?”

He pondered it. “It was good enough for some, but not for me.”

“So, do you hate yourself?”

He smiled at her, warm. “I don’t think so. But sometimes, yes.”

“I don’t hate myself,” she said. “I don’t think we should hate ourselves. But maybe sometimes we should.”

“There are better ways to look at it than that. But we cannot speak of those now. Perhaps later. But you’re right.”

She pulled the robe tight around her. “It’s cold in here.”

He pushed himself from the pew. “I’ve kept you long enough,” he said. “You should join the other ladies at the wedding shower. There’s some good food down there, and it’s warm.”

She sighed but could no longer fight it. She stood and picked up the three presents from the pew and walked down the aisle back toward the foyer and the stairs to the basement. Before she left, she turned to him and said, “Don’t worry about what you said earlier. I won’t tell anyone. Our secret.”

Again, his warm smile. “You need not keep it secret,” he said. “The sheep must know their shepherd’s voice. A pastor can never have secrets.”

“You talk to me like an adult. Nobody else does. They treat me like a kid.”

“It’s not that I treat you like an adult,” he said. “I just talk to you like I’d talk to anyone else, like a human being.”

Women’s voices echoed through the stairwell and through the foyer into the sanctuary. They brought a finality to their conversation that discomfited her and yet she knew it was best. “Well, thank you for talking to me,” she said.

He unfastened his collar, freeing it from his red sweater. “My pleasure,” he said. “Go in peace.”


To read Chapter #008, click here.

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#006 – All That is Perfect Must be Practiced

“Richard, do you know a word that rhymes with ‘complacent?’” Denise asked her husband as they lay in bed.

A few moments passed before he mumbled his reply through the pillow. “No,” he said. “Why?”

“No matter,” she said. Her hand clasped a pencil, which could not find the gravity to descend. She lay in bed, her pillows propped behind her back, with a notepad in her lap. A few finished stanzas—if that was what they were called—filled the page but none pleased her. Nibbling on the eraser of her pencil, she stared at her troublesome word: complacent.

“Time is it?” Richard asked, again through the pillow.

She looked over to their alarm clock. “2:30,” she said.

“Go to bed, honey bear.”

“I want to finish this one line.”

He lifted himself from his pillow, his hair matted and riotous. “Line of what?”

She smiled at him, running a hand through his hair and leaning over to lightly massage his neck and shoulders. His head dropped back to the pillow. Soon, he was snoring again.

An hour later she resigned from her notepad, having written nothing else. Sleep soon overtook her. When the alarm sounded the next morning, her husband rose abruptly from bed, but she rolled over and snoozed. Later, she woke to the song of sparrows and robins and perhaps one or two ducks who had visited from a nearby pond. She lay in bed for a few minutes, motionless, and thought about trying to go back to sleep but decided it would ruin her whole day.

Through much of her morning she stumbled around in a stupor, and by the time she had composed herself, it was already 11:00 am. She dressed, ate a simple lunch and went out to her studio to prepare for the afternoon. The studio was technically a two-room guesthouse in her backyard, with a brickwalk leading up to it from the street. Near the door, a set of windchimes yielded to the tickling of the wind.

A small bench sat in the foyer next to a simple wooden coat tree with a child’s jacket hanging from it. At the end of the foyer a series of broad windowpanes comprised the western wall of her studio. The windows looked onto a line of bare garden backed by a row of browning bushes that bordered her yard with the Lubbock’s. Somehow, the Lubbock garden retained a small bush of red roses even with the chill of winter approaching. Denise shook her head in mild disbelief.

The foyer turned right into the main room. Against the far wall sat a coffee-brown upright piano, with a few folders of sheet music atop it. Two pages from a Chopin waltz rested on the music desk. Denise pulled out the bench and sat before the piano and let her fingers find their shape on the keys. She didn’t look at the sheet music as she began to play.

Chopin, Waltz #9 In A Flat, Op. 6

At first, her pace quickened and the notes were running away from her and she was slouching, which she always forbade in the studio, so straightened and breathed and the music slowed and found its place in the room. Her left hand formed chords as her right hand sailed above them in fleecy clouds. As she closed her eyes and played, she could see glaucous snows lighting upon the slopes of the sibling mountains and on the rooftops of Kinnaston and gliding down the Buckle Creek. She was in a copse, the snow dusting the trees, and she was surrounded in warming light. Her hands pushed forward the piece, and that grand, golden ball pushed above her and cast down its compassion upon her face and a rush of wind brushed past her and suddenly she knew the door was open and that she wasn’t alone.

Town Snow Falling

Her hands halted and the song died. A zip of a jacket from behind her. She turned around and there stood a small girl with her mother in the frame of the doorway. “Marvelous,” the woman said, pulling the leather gloves from her fingers. It was Mrs. Joyce Morrison. “Please continue.”

Denise shifted around on the piano bench, facing them. Her body shielding the piano behind her. “That’s all right,” she said. “We’ll begin Avery’s lesson.”

Mrs. Morrison shook her head in wonder. “I hardly knew Kinnaston held such a talent,” she said.

“Kind of you to say. Though not talented as some,” Denise said, smiling warmly at the girl named Avery.

“Nonetheless,” Mrs. Morrison continued, “you’ve never played for me before. Not even at church. How is that possible?”

Denise shrugged. “One of those things, I guess.”

“It’s criminal to hide that talent, Mrs. Ellfry. You ought to play one of our house parties. Our neighbors would adore you, and Jack’s always bugging me about how we need someone. Conversation is so much more interesting over music.”

“I’ll check my schedule,” Denise said, her voice hushing.

Mrs. Morrison lingered awhile longer wondering about something before she ushered her daughter into the room. Then, she sat upon the bench in the foyer and went back to her wondering. Denise got up from the piano bench and offered the seat to Avery, who leapt to it gracefully.

“I love your little dress,” Denise said, remarking at Avery’s white satin, decorated at the hem with blue butterflies.

“Thank you, Mrs. Ellfry,” she said, opening her songbook and placing it on the music desk.

“Have you been practicing?”

“Loads,” she said, sighing dramatically. But she looked back to Denise and grinned mischievously.

Denise smirked. “Well, let’s see what progress we’ve made.”

They continued with the lesson, and at the end of it, Avery received a gold star next to her name on the studio wall. Her name was printed near the end of a list of twenty or thirty names. “Are they all your students?” Avery asked her, pointing to the list.

“Oh no,” Denise said, “I’ve had many, many more students than that.”

“How many?”

“Well,” Denise said, “Let’s see. I’ve been a teacher here for eighteen years. Each year, I believe I have around five or six new students. So how many students do you think that would be?”

Puzzled, Avery grimaced.  She started counting on her fingers, but quickly got stuck with the counting.

“Only started multiplication,” Mrs. Morrison offered from the foyer.

Denise blushed. “Sorry, that’s a tough problem,” she said. “I’ve had about a hundred students in my time. Maybe more.”

Avery’s eyes grew wide.

“That’s a lot, isn’t it?” Mrs. Morrison asked, her voice singsong. Avery nodded in awe. Mrs. Morrison rose from her bench and summoned her daughter and thanked Denise. “And please,” she added, “if you’d ever play for us, we’d love to have you.”

Denise nodded as Mrs. Morrison and her daughter left the studio. When the door closed, she sighed and looked back to her desk, an antique secretary she had discovered in the house when they had first moved in. On the desk was her notebook with the unfinished stanza. Sunlight poured from the windowed wall of her studio and glimmered from the copper artworks adorning the room. Her favorite piece sat on the top of her shelf for songbooks and sheet music, a stoic copper dragon. It regarded her with a kingly gaze. The sunlight flared from his face and from his long tail, as if caught aflame.

After a few broken attempts at writing anything, she closed her notebook and let her mind wander. Two other students visited that afternoon: an accomplished freshman named Vernon Bell, who was quickly becoming one of her weekly veterans, and a young gradeschooler named Curtis Wheeler, who refused to keep still, twisting about in his seat throughout the entire lesson.

Between their lessons, she would stare at her notebook and wonder what more she could write. And she wondered if there was anything more that she should write. And beyond that, if any of it really mattered.

Piano Glimmering

More than twice, she would set down the notebook and pick it up again and set it down and pick it up again. Finally, she closed it and stuffed it into the top drawer of her secretary and got up to return home. Richard would be back soon, so she’d have to start dinner.

A knock sounded at the door. Denise paused. She wasn’t expecting any more students today, and Richard wouldn’t be home for at least another hour. Again, a knock at the door. “Come in,” she called. “It’s unlocked.”

The door opened with a rush of wind behind it. A flurry of cold ran around the room. “Hello?” a voice called from the foyer, a familiar voice. Submerged somewhere in her memory. She tried to retrieve it.

“Who is that?” she asked, cautious.

Heavy footsteps on the hardwood floor. Boots possibly. A big guy. “Don’t remember?” he asked. “Thought you were psychic.”

She gasped. “John?”

A young man with a full brown beard peered around the corner. The beard was new to her, but the face was not. He wore a red and black flannel coat with a woolen hat and a grand smile. “Good to see you, Mrs. Ellfry,” he said.

“John Brunetti,” she said, her hand over her mouth. “You look like a lumberjack. When did you get home?”

“Just got back,” he said, pulling off his coat and hat. “Mom doesn’t even know I’m back yet.”

“Then what are you doing here?”

“Had to come by and say hello to my favorite piano teacher,” he said, grinning. He took a seat on the piano bench.

“Certainly a surprise. I’d love to chat with you, but I’m starting supper soon. Maybe you’d stay and eat with us?”

“Wish I could,” he said, his shoulder sagging. “Unfortunately, got a previous engagement. I’m only here for a few minutes.”

“Well before you go, you’ll have to play me something. Obviously. You know the rules.”

He cracked his knuckles. “Ain’t been practicing much. What should I play?”

“Doubtless you’ll find something in that mind of yours,” she said, turning to her desk. She glanced out of the corner of her eye, waiting for him.

He spun on the bench and rested his large hands on the piano keys. They were more calloused now than when Denise had last seen them. He closed his eyes and breathed deeply—in and out—and began. She did not recognize the song.

“Snake” by Robert Downey Jr.

John started softly with two simple chords, one with his left followed shortly by one with his right. Two more chords, already establishing the key and theme. Back to the original. Slowly, he built upon those chords, his right hand finding freedom to wander unhurried from its moorings while his left continued supporting the base. Hesitation left him as the song continued, and John grew bolder and found stronger tones.

She stood from her chair and walked over to the windows, watching the sun meet the horizon. The moon was now visible, all full in its humble sky, as if it was waiting to take command. John stumbled a few times in his song, awakening her from her reverie, but he found his confidence again. A word popped into her head as he played: adjacent.

As he continued, she hurried back to her desk and pulled out her notebook and pencil and began to write. She scribbled in rhythm to John’s playing, as it quickened and slowed, and when he finished, she had a new set of stanzas. She remarked at them and smiled.

“What were you writing?” John asked.

“Just a little something,” she said.

“A poem, huh?”

She paused, then nodded.

“My kind of poem, right?”

Again, she nodded.

“How long’ve you been doing spoken word?”

“Is that what they call it?” she asked. “You used to call it ‘slamming.’”

He chuckled. “Yeah, they don’t call it that anymore.”

“Anyway, I’m not really sure what I’m writing.”

“Let’s hear it. That’ll decide what we call it.”

She huffed. “I think not.”

“You have to,” he said. “I played for you, and I know you won’t play anything for me. We’re at an impasse.”

“Tell me about the city,” she said, attempting to defuse him. “What did you find out there?”

He crossed his arms. “You first.”

She shook her head. “A student shouldn’t demand something so personal from his teacher.”

“As I recall,” he said, scratching his mussed hair, “when it came to the word, I was the teacher and you were student.”

She huffed again and looked down at the words on her notepad. How embarrassing they were, looking up at her in their nakedness. She looked back to John, who still sat there in anticipation, a great oak unmovable.

“Fine,” she said, clearing her throat.  “But I want no criticism.”

“And you’ll receive none,” he replied.

She read aloud the words on her single page:

Perfection—by Denise Ellfry:

They say that practice makes perfect,

But I say that practice—makes—predictable.

They say that practice makes perfect,

But I saw that practice—made me—predictable.

The notes I play on the page are raised

From silence to compliance

And the silence I raised was none too surprising

Given the rising of thoughtless devising—on my part.

Am I disguising myself?

Or am I simply a new progression

Moving forward from old days to new ways

Until progression becomes predictable.

Yes, predictable is what I am and who I am

Because it has been practiced.

Because who I am has been practiced.

Because who I was, was practiced—and forgotten.

And so I sit around complacent

While the adjacent spaces of heaven

Fall around me in bitter disarray

Begging me to reassign them.

So I lift my hands to the firmament

And ask from where a song could form

Where I could find new, unfound music

New, unbound songs—new, unsound hymns.

A hymn from which to begin

O, where must I begin?

I begin with: O Sacred Head, now wounded,

With grief and shame weighed down.

I found upon that Sacred Head

A great and weighty crown.

Then, I fell down.

Not perfect or practiced or predictable.

I broke my knee and threw it down

My small and humble crown

Denise placed her notepad on her desk. John lightly snapped his fingers and smiled warmly.

“What did you find out there in the city?” she asked, turning to him.

“A broader country,” he said. “And smaller homes.”

City Lights Brush

“How long will you be home?” she asked.

“As long as it takes.”

“As long as what takes?”

He smiled again and rose from the bench. He picked up his coat and woolen hat and donned them. “Have my other classmates shown up?” he asked.

“Heard Irena was in town,” she said. “And apparently some have been talking about seeing Godfrey’s boy, but I highly doubt that.”

“I’d doubt it, too. If I see them, I’ll send them on over,” he said.

With that, he left the room and opened the door to the outside. But before it closed again, she heard his voice, saying, “You had a good word.”

The door closed. Denise stowed away her notebook in the secretary desk and rose, walking over to her shelves. For a few moments, she scanned the books and hymnals and collections before deciding upon one. She pulled out a folder filled with loose-leaf sheets of music and rummaged through the folder before finding her selection.

She set out the music on the piano before her, formed her hands to the keys and played.


To read chapter #007, click here.

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