Fiction

this is us trying

He stood there on their front porch, noticing the weeds growing in their garden. They mingled with the violets and daffodils. They were tall – not so much as to ruin the entire garden but just enough to catch his attention.

“He really should do something about those weeds on his day off,” he thought.

The knob began to turn and the door pulled open.

“Hey there, come on in,” she said, greeting him with a smile.

“Thank you,” he said softly, trying to return a smile himself but not really succeeding.

He entered inside the modest but pretty house. It smelt like it always did – a woody smell mixed with something sweet always baking in the oven. It was familiar and comforting.

“He’s finishing up a phone call in his study. Can I get you something to drink while you’re waiting? Perhaps a glass of sweet tea?”

“No, thank you. I’m good.”

“Ok. Well, you can come wait in the den until he’s through with his phone call if you’d like.”

“Ok.”

He followed her into the den. She continued onward into the kitchen, he assumed to check on whatever she was baking. And, perhaps to drink a glass of tea.

It wasn’t that he didn’t like her sweet tea. In fact, her sweet tea was the best on the block. He had always loved drinking it growing up. Just thinking about it reminded him of summertime. But, then, in that moment, he simply wasn’t in the mood to drink anything sweet. Whisky, perhaps, but nothing sweet.

He stood in the center of the den, surrounded on all sides by a blockade of two couches, a rocking chair, a coffee table, and a worn, wooden piano. He had memories of her playing it from when he was younger – hymns and such.

Looking down at the large, ornate coffee table – the centerpiece of the room – he saw a few old-looking books lying on it. He picked one up and thumbed through it. He read its title. “The Last Great American Dynasty.” He picked up another and flipped through it, too. It was a shorter one entitled “Exile of a Mad Woman.” He sat both down. There were a couple more lying there. He began to read the title of one of them. “Mirror-”

“Hi, sorry about that! I had a surprise phone call that I had to take. A bit of an emergency. But, everything’s going to be ok now. Why don’t you come back to the study and we can talk in there?”

He left the curious books behind and followed the man back into his study. It was a small room. Not many more than a few could sit in there comfortably. He used it for his personal study and to do one-on-one counseling sessions as well as couple’s counseling. The walls were lined with bookshelves filled with books of all sizes and colors. Most of them were religious in nature, naturally. Yet, there were a few with intriguing titles, not unlike the books on the coffee table. This was his first time to notice them.

“He reads more than just the Bible. That’s good, I guess,” he thought to himself.

He sunk down into a brown, leather chair across from the man who sat behind a stained, mahogany desk.

“How are you doing today?” the man behind the desk asked him.

He crossed his hands over his stomach and looked to his left. There was a painting of the empty grave on the wall. He smirked a little, pulling at the sleeve of his jacket. Without looking at the man behind the desk he simply remarked, “Jesus can’t fix this, Preach.”

“Can’t fix what, James?”

He turned his gaze and stared at the preacher.

“You know exactly what I’m talking about.” His eyes were wide, almost crazed. “You know what happened.”

The preacher leaned an elbow on his desk and adjusted his glasses. He looked down at his desk, then he looked back up at James.

“I know. I know that nothing is going to bring Betty-”

“Don’t you dare say her name!” James spat. He was glaring at the preacher. The preacher shifted in his seat, placing both elbows on the desk now, supporting his chin with crisscrossed knuckles.

“Do I not have the right to say her name? Am I not allowed to remember her? Or be upset about this? You weren’t the only one who knew her, James. You weren’t the only one who was close to her.”

James looked away, shaking his head, trembling.

“Why don’t we start off by saying a prayer? May I do that, James?”

James didn’t reply. He just continued to stare at the painting of the tomb. The preacher took that as a green light.

“Our Father in Heaven, we ask for Your blessings today. We ask for Your grace. Please, remind us of Your love for us and give us the strength that we need to make it through this trying season. Be with James – as I ask that You would be with all of us right now – as we mourn the loss of someone so dear to us, so special.” The preacher began to choke up. “And, thank You for the salvation that we find in Your Son. It’s in His precious name that we pray, amen.”

Bringing his prayer to an almost abrupt close, the preacher wiped a tear from his eye and looked up at James.

“James, why are you here?”

“Why am I here? You know why I’m here, Preach. I’m here because my parents are making me. Sucks but apparently when you’re seventeen your parents get to force you into crap like this.”

“I think your parents are only trying to help you.”

“Yeah, well, I don’t know what the preacher I had when I was a kid is going to say that’s going to fix anything.” He looked the preacher dead in the eyes. “I don’t even go to your church anymore. For all I’m concerned, you’re not even my preacher.”

James continued to glare at the preacher, eyes filled with enough anger to almost disguise the hurt. After all, he had never been that angry of a person until a few months before when it had all happened.

“James, your parents still go to my church. You’re still on the membership role. And,” he said with the edges of his lips curving up ever so slightly, “I hope that even if you don’t see me as your preacher, you’ll always see me as your friend. I’ve known you since you were, what? Seven? Eight?”

There was a moment or two of silence. James pulled at his jacket sleeve some more.

“Yeah,” he replied, beginning to disarm but only a bit. “Guess you moved down the street from us when I was in elementary.”

He looked up at the ceiling, took a deep breath, and looked back at the preacher. He wanted to know something. He needed to.

“Preach, why do you still put up with me?”

The preacher tilted his head and squinted his eyes a bit.

“What do you mean?”

“I mean, why do you still talk to me? Why are you taking the time to meet with me? I mean, I don’t go to your church anymore. And,” he laughed, “let’s be honest: I’m not exactly the ‘good church kid’ I used to be.” He looked at the preacher, who continued to stare at him blankly with a titled head. “Come on, Preach. I’m no secret. You know I like to drink. I like to party. I’m not a virgin – not even close. I’m not the kid that you used to know.”

“James, can I tell you something that I love about Jesus?”

Now James was the one with the inquisitive look on his face. He sat up a bit straighter in his chair, as if bracing for impact.

“What?” he asked dryly.

“What I love about Jesus is that He looks at sinners like you and at sinners like me and He chooses to love us anyways. He choosesto. He doesn’t have to. Don’t miss that little difference there because it’s a big one. And James,” he leaned forward a bit, “I’m no Jesus, but I still choose to love you. I choose to respect you. I choose to treat you like the child of God that you are. And nothing that you do is ever going to change that.”

James fidgeted around in his chair a bit. He looked uncomfortable, like he had just been told what he knew he needed to hear yet didn’t want to. He twiddled his thumbs for a moment, then he spoke.

“You know, the other day, I drove over to the lookout at the edge of town. You know, the one next to that old lighthouse that overlooks the Lake. And…” his voice trailed off. His words failed him. He began to tear up, visibly struggling. He looked the preacher in the eyes.

“I almost jumped, Preach. I almost jumped right off the freakin’ edge.” He leaned his head backwards, as if to let the tears flow back down into his head. He cleared his throat.

“I just want to know why – why’d God have to let her die? Why’d God have to let a beautiful, seventeen-year-old girl die of cancer? Can you tell me that, Preach? Can you tell me why God – if He’s so good and loving and all that – why He couldn’t just save her? Just her. It was Betty, Preach.” The tears were flowing down now, no sign of stopping in the near future. “It’s not like it was Hitler. It was Betty. My Betty. Why couldn’t God have just saved her?”

He was continuing to stare at the preacher, but this time he wasn’t looking at him with anger. He was looking at him with hurt. With pain. With an open wound that just wasn’t healing. Whisky wasn’t healing it. Screaming at the sky wasn’t healing it. Insomnia wasn’t healing it.

The preacher leaned forward again, this time taking off his glasses.

“James, we live in a broken world. It’s been ‘broken since the garden,’ so to speak. And sometimes bad things just-”

“No!” James yelled, standing up and walking the two steps it took to get to the desk. Slamming his fists down on it, he began his tirade.

“No! Don’t come at me with that ‘sometimes bad things happen to good people’ crap! Don’t try to tell me that God’s in control or that God works in mysterious ways! If God’s so ‘in control’ then why didn’t He stop the cancer? Why didn’t He heal her?” James was weeping now. “Why didn’t he stop me from having sex last August with that girl in my grandparent’s hometown? That hurt Betty more than the cancer ever did.” Now his hands were no longer in fists on the desk but were gripping its edge, as if holding on for dear life lest he slip over it and never return.

“I put that girl through Hell, Preach, but she still loved me. Isn’t that crazy?” It almost sounded as if he were on the verge of laughing now. “Betty…Betty thought that I was ‘the one.’ Isn’t that stupid? The one. As if that even exists.” He straightened himself up a bit, letting go of the desk and holding his hands together. His eyes weren’t just red from the tears. They were red from all of the sleepless nights he had been having lately. James was tired. He was tired from the conversation, and even more weary from the sleepless nights before.

“I don’t know, Preach. I want to believe that God has some grand plan in all of this, but…but it just feels like a big hoax. And, I know, I know. I shouldn’t say that. But, honestly, it just does.”

James looked back over at the painting that had captured his gaze from the moment he’d entered into the study. The issue wasn’t that he didn’t believe in God. No, it was quite the opposite, actually: James didbelieve in God, deep down in his bones. Even if it wasn’t something that he talked much about anymore. And, he couldn’t understand how this perfectly good and loving being could let someone as precious as Betty die of breast cancer at age seventeen.

He slumped back down into the leather seat. He was worn out. Nothing was working. He didn’t enjoy drinking anymore. He didn’t care about any of the girls that he slept with. His friends just annoyed him now and even his own parents – whom he had always been extremely close with – felt like strangers. Without Betty, everything had fallen apart. She had become his savior of sorts, his source of peace.

“You’re right, James.”

James looked up at the preacher. Was he agreeing with him? Was he admitting that all of this was just some made-up story to try to make people feel better – to give them something to believe in, even if it didn’t exist?

“Sometimes this does all feel like a hoax – like some folktale that’s been passed down for years but isn’t anything more than that. But, I think we both know that’s not true. I don’t understand why Betty had to die. But, James, Betty dying doesn’t mean that God’s not real. And, just because you and I can’t understand something doesn’t mean that it doesn’t exist. Betty believed in God, didn’t she? And, she’s the one who had the cancer. Maybe – just maybe – God let her die because He’d accomplished what He needed to accomplish with her life on earth. Maybe He brought her home because her mission on this cruel planet was done. Maybe He was rescuing her. I don’t know, James. What I do know is this: you can look for peace in a bottle or in a woman or in a memory, but you and I both know that those things never last. There’s only one person who can bring you peace, but, I think you’ve already met Him a long time ago, haven’t you?”

James looked back over at the painting. It had always been his favorite thing in the study – the study that he had grown up playing in with Betty and the preacher’s daughter, Inez. There were pictures of the cross everywhere you looked in Pennsylvania – in churches, on bumper stickers, even in jewelry. But, the empty tomb, the symbol of true victory and hope – of salvation – that wasn’t something James had ever seen dangling from someone’s necklace. James smiled, if only briefly.

“You know, Preach, I haven’t prayed since the night that Betty died. Even before then I hadn’t prayed much, not in years. But, I prayed so hard that God would save Betty.” He looked down at his folded hands. They were folded as if to pray, but he wasn’t. He looked back up at the man behind the desk – the preacher and his friend. “I haven’t prayed since.”

The preacher stood up and walked around his desk. He placed a hand on James’ shoulder, and he knelt down next to him.

“James, will you do me a favor? A favor for an old friend. Pray. Before we meet next week, say a prayer. It doesn’t have to be long, and you don’t have to come back and tell me what you said. Just pray something – anything. Ok?”

James wiped any remaining tears from his cheeks with the palms of his hands and cleared his throat. He blinked his eyes a few times to clear those, too.

“Ok, Preach. I’ll pray.”

The preacher squeezed his shoulder ever so slightly and smiled at him.

“That’s all I’m asking.”

The preacher returned to his seat behind the desk and they spoke for a few more minutes. He quoted the Scripture a time or two, and when their meeting had come to a close, the preacher prayed for James once more. As he stood to leave the study and was nearing the door, James turned around and – with all of the strength he could muster – put on the semblance of a comforting smile and said, “I’m sorry for your loss, too.”

The edges of the preacher’s lips curled up ever so slightly as they had before. He nodded his head. “Thank you, James.”

James opened the door and left the room, not to be seen by the preacher for another seven days. The preacher stood and looked out the window, watching James ride away down the cobblestone driveway on his skateboard. He turned back towards his desk and sat down again, picking up a picture frame. It displayed a photo that had been taken the year before at Thanksgiving. In-between he and his brother stood his brother’s daughter, Betty.

There she was, smiling. His niece was beautiful even when she wasn’t trying. She simply stood there between the taller men, wearing a white cardigan and a pink and purple bandana to cover her bald head. Chemo was always tough on Betty, but she had faced it with a smile, he remembered.

The preacher sat the frame down and took off his glasses again. Bowing his head, he prayed. It was a prayer that was almost more for him than it was for James. It was a moment of vulnerability. Preachers have those too, of course.

“Dear God, please give James peace. And,” he looked up at the ceiling, tears streaming down his worn face, “give me some peace, too.”

Instagram: @christianstringeris

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