by Todd Robert Petersen
Previously unpublished, this story appears in Petersen’s collection “Long After Dark” available from Zarahemla Books.
The woman who miscarried two weeks ago reminds these people that “no one ever promised them a rose garden.” And the man with prostate cancer says, “Amen,” then feels strange about it. To him it feels like he’s attending the revival meetings from what seems like a past life.
The woman who’s husband no longer comes to church closes her scriptures but leaves her finger in the book, marking Peter’s second epistle for later. She thinks how nice it would be to touch the corduroy of her husband’s thigh, to glance over at his razor-nicked face and see that he has finally come to know that the best things in this life will carry over into the next. For years now she has taken to praying only for the poor and the infirm who do not tear a hole in her heart the way he does.
The young man who looks like he has cerebral palsy drops his pencil, and a girl who was raped on the night of her junior prom picks it up and hands it back to him. They are the same age but haven’t spoken in years. Last week, he told the congregation that when he was ten his father beat him and his mother with a golf club and left them for dead. His mother is alive, but the young man comes to church alone now. By the time he makes it home, she has lunch on the table. He eats it alone, staring out the kitchen window into the dirt yard.
The unmarried pediatrician with one breast asks a question about grace, and the man whose son shot a convenience store clerk in New Mexico can only shake his head and say that it’s a gift. “A gift,” he repeats, looking at the congregation, members of which sit stiffly in their folding chairs. “It’s bleak sometimes,” he confesses, lowering his head. “There are days I want to lie down and quit. But something won’t let me do it.” He looks over at his wife and smiles sheepishly. Her eyes are sunken and dark. She has tried to dress them up with cheap eye shadow, but it only brings her shame into relief. By noon she’ll be directing the choir as they practice for next Sunday.
And by Monday she will have slipped from their thoughts like a coin into a dish. In a week, her appearance again in the church building will surprise them, the vacuousness of her expression reminding them that their lives aren’t as rotten as they could be. She has no idea that her misery is giving them hope. They will never bring it up. Church is not a place for burdens such as these.
Editor’s note: comments open to everything, including sentence-level edits