When Curtis walked into the library straight up to your desk and your high forehead bent over a reference slip he knew what he was getting, being a man of few illusions. He wanted help with something simple but hard and this called for straightforward zeal. To demonstrate this, he wore all black – black jeans, black t-shirt, black shoes. He needed a disciple, strong and true. He was not a man who would waste his efforts on some woman who had too much to lose by loving him. He had a cross with a wheel on it that weighed one hundred pounds. Would someone follow him and wipe the sweat off of his brow and refresh him with drink while he hauled it through town? He was going out to the places where women sold their bodies. Your Filipino boss who wore the flower on her dress was twitching her bottom between the stacks. You left your desk to follow Jesus. Curtis had all the fire as in days of old when your father stood from the pulpit and the power and the glory showed and a tingling went over your skin like gooseflesh, except when this preacher was done he wheeled his cross to a hotel room and kissed you like you were his water. He laid you out and you are sure. He left the cross in your room. You were pure and intact. Dreams of white drifted down on your hair. A dress like snow, a crown of flowers.
You were not going back to your work at the library, where the homeless talk about electricity in the air, all around. It was strange how they always used to ask you for books, out of all the librarians there, and to you they spilled out their theories about invisible charges, as if you were some kind of conduit. Maybe your father made you that way when he shot you through with the Holy Spirit and then left you empty or maybe Jesus made you vulnerable. It was the sad people who felt the love in you. You saw them coming, down a long row of books, their clothes slipshod and soiled, eyes darting like fish. No matter how high you piled the books on your desk, they found you and then they got you into the stacks and told you, forced on you, what they believed about the material world, its qualities visible and invisible, its causes and effects, existences and essences, their voices climbing to fever pitch, until you slipped them the thunderstorm book, somewhere between 551.5 and 551.6, the cover a dark sky and lightning bolt. That quelled them as if someone had wrapped them in a restraint.
You would not go back there. The tiny librarian who wore a polyester flower on her dress every day did not know anything about how you witnessed the words of the Holy Spirit issued from your father’s mouth in a church just down the street. She only knew that you didn’t fill out your reference request forms neatly so that the other librarians could read them. She’s worked at the library for five years and just took her first vacation last year when the library forced her to. Some of the librarians said she still came in her jeans and did some paperwork but this was hard to imagine – the jeans part, not the part about coming in during a mandatory vacation. Every day you knew her, she wore hose and vinyl pumps and dresses with different patterns on them, sometimes a suit jacket if she had a department head meeting. She stood over you some nights and made you rewrite the reference slips. When she was not looking you slipped away to look up books on the Outer Banks, where your parents retired.
How bitter you have been. How you have despised the thought of your father playing golf with your mother in North Carolina. The indentation in the carpet where he used to stand and say goodbye to his parishioners with you was occupied by someone else every Sunday, someone you had never met. When you were the golden girl, you knew the secret place where your father kept his cup, a cup he would sip out of when everyone bowed to pray, right before the sermon. You used to feel it’s’ cool smoothness when you went up to the pulpit to play preacher. Who filled it before the service? Only that person and you knew of its existence. You pretended to sip and there was nothing there. Maybe it was a foretaste of what was to come, that you would get nothing, only air and memories.
Why was it that you held onto these dreams of when you were a girl? Was it because it was the last time you remember Jesus that solidly, as solidly as your father’s knobby fingers, his brown eyes kind and soft? You used to meet the copper Jesus in the columbarium on your lunch break and look for your father’s face in the burnished cheek, the hollowed out eyes. Copper Jesus stood. There was no lap for sitting and the hand he extended was far smaller than your own. You sat on the stone bench in front of the place where your brother’s ashes were kept and wondered how your father could be thinking of his chip shot. You grabbed a knot of flowers from the feet of Jesus and scattered them, roots and all, at the foot of your brother’s remains. There was no container for the flowers and you wished he were laid out in the ground, like people used to be, so you could pay tribute in the usual way. Your father helped design the columbarium and you had complained to him about the lack of flower holders, although by then it was too late. A redesign would involve a removal of the ashes and hence all kinds of permits and procedures. Perhaps no one had complained of it but you. No wonder no one had been winking at you when they came down the aisle, as a father might his daughter, or a groomsman his bride. You were always such a complainer.
On the second day of your discipleship, Curtis offered his mouth to yours. His breath was milky and sweet. You were lying on your back and in the hollow of your neck he placesd something metal and small. It was a tiny silver ring with two hands clasping. It was a symbol of something more than the promise of marriage. It was a promise that bound you to the God of his mission. He held you like a lover, like Christ loved the church, and yes, you say, yes, yes. No longer were you the golden girl holding the sweaty hand of your father, sweaty from the long exertion in the high pulpit, sweaty when he shook the hands of the parishioners in the narthex.
You called your parents to tell them the good news. Your mother seemed not to hear. She did not know Curtis, did not recognize an engagement ring without a diamond. She described for you a party on a boat where there had been fire-eaters, magicians, a four-tiered chocolate fountain into which the guests dipped cake and fruit. Your mother, you are sure, has pulled your father into this. She has leaned on him until he no longer pounds on pulpits. It’s called retirement she said to you when you complained, when you say he had a calling to preach the Word. You and your father, she said, you and your father with your notions and your dreamy dreams, your unrealistic expectations. You reminded yourself that she had lost a child. Sometimes you excused her. In the weeks after your brother’s car crashed into the tree, your mother laid her head down on the spot where your brother had been found. She collected bits of glass and looked for small things that might have flown from the car.
On the day of your wedding, Curtis wore a tuxedo and his mother came too, dressed in soft pink, and so did his father, a man with a flat top, still from Navy days. Your parents did not come. It is all done improperly, most improper, objected your mother in that small mincing way. I love you honey, says your Dad, before your Mom makes him get off the phone. All the librarians were there except the Filipino who was likely adjusting her flower, somewhere in the stacks. Ms. Filipino would never marry, you heard the librarians saying, not if Deborah manages to pull this one off and that woman is trying so hard, twitching her backside around and laughing for the good looking men, taking her glasses off for them as soon as she sees them coming. I mean, Deborah of all people, that forehead and that face, not trying to look good at all and then, boom, like grace, someone whisks her away.
The minister by Lake Eola wore a white robe, just like in your dreams, with a stole of intertwining vines. After you exchanged rings with your beloved, the minister laid his hands over yours and they were warm and sweaty and his exertions made this more than his blessing on the marriage, but a testimony. Jane, children’s librarian, was baptized in the lake afterwards by her own request and this was proof to the minister that the ceremony had been more than the joining of two hearts but a sign of the Holy. Everyone had cake and sparkling grape juice. You were filled up and warm and sat around talking on the amphitheater stage close by the lake, you and your colleagues never having been close until that day – and now you could call them friends – and then someone got the idea to rent the swans that were really paddle boats with a swan facade and you with your new husband, you paddled around and then when you got to the fountain, you jumped in, your white dress floating around you, your feet slipping free of your shoes and everyone jumped in and you all laughed and floated and lost your shoes as if you were ascending.
You took up the cross when Curtis died. Someone avenging the trade of prostitution shot him. You sat in the dim apartment you shared with him for a scant three weeks. You ate the last can of vegetables and then you took the cross to the place where your father had once breathed out the Spirit. On Sunday morning, you wheeled it by the windows so that the parishioners would look out. The cross had a squeaky wheel and was not easy to listen to. You called your parents, the last call you made before your phone service was cut. You told them what you were doing for your Lord, your husband’s mission. Your mother complained that you never call early enough, always when they were in bed and yet you were beginning to see what she was about and what she was up against and you told her no matter what, you would always be her daughter. She had been trying to rid herself of you, to be free from pain.
At three months, you could not ignore the change, the cessation of cycles, your growing stomach. Your parents came and you were in their good graces again. It was painfully transparent why: You had finally fulfilled their desires for a grandchild, but you didn’t care anymore about your principles and battles. The hormones and God have made you giddy. You made the Filipino with the flower the godmother. Why not? You knew she will do the right thing by your child. She was so thrilled, she cried and became serious and gave up her twitching. A man finally fell in love with her velvety cheek and the large dark eyes behind her glasses. You and your parents stood by the baptismal font, along with Angelina, Phillip’s godmother. On the other side of a long row of windows where you used to wheel your cross was the columbarium. After the service, you took the cup that was in its secret place behind the pulpit. When no one was looking, you filled it with water from the font, asking God’s forgiveness. You poured it on the flowers at the feet of the once ineffectual copper Jesus. Small though he was, he seemed more of a comfort.
Your fire will be a cooling one and in the stone court, your brother will reside in a believer’s sleep.
First appeared in Relief