Finding St. Sebastian’s was easy. Deciding to get out of the car and join the meeting was not as simple. The minute the stick shift rammed into the “park” position the heaviness was released and I had to choose to fight or succumb. Neither option was inviting but not going to the meeting would have been a waste of time and gasoline. I decided to get my money’s worth and unbuckled my seat belt.
St. Sebastian’s was not a large church, at least it didn’t look like it from the parking lot. The main building, which I assumed was the sanctuary, looked like it had been designed in the seventies when every denomination was trying to be cool and hip and cater to a wider berth of the population; the Catholics joined the fray with all the other great religions of the world and came up with their own unique architectural marvels. Like St. Sebastian’s. The roofline looked like a circus tent, swagged with sharp points at each apex, dipping and curving like the concrete had set to early. The front was all glass with only a large, silver horizontal bar differentiating the doors from the windows. The lobby was lit but seemed quiet and empty. I tried one of the doors but it was locked so I walked to the left and followed a sidewalk leading to the back of the building. There was a handwritten sign resting on an easel stationed on the building side of the walk, halfway down, so I headed toward it hoping to glean some information that would help me find the meeting.
“The men’s reconciliation group will be meeting in the Chapel this evening due to scheduling conflicts. The meeting is still at 8 o’clock. Welcome!” The words were followed by an arrow pointing to the right so I continued to walk to the end of the building and was surprised to see a green space behind the church complete with a small garden and concrete benches. It was well lit and obviously cared for by loving, trained hands. On the other side of the greenery was a small wooden building, traditional in style, resembling a farmhouse and in sharp contrast to the outdated funkiness of the main sanctuary. The outside of the rectangular chapel was covered in lap siding, painted white but even from where I was standing in the dark I could tell it was wearing multiple layers of latex. The series of stained glass windows rimming the tops of the walls were glowing, signaling there were lights on inside and indicating this was the place I was supposed to be. I followed the sidewalk and inched my way through the gardens, using my sudden admiration for meticulously maintained grounds as an excuse to delay my entrance into the world of sad men.
I eventually made it to the entrance and stood with my fingers squeezing the handle, searching for any last reserve of courage to propel me the final few feet. As I swung open the door I was greeted by bright light and the low murmur of testosterone fueled voices. As I hesitated to let my eyes adjust to the jarring transition from night to fluorescents, the murmuring stopped.
“Earl?” I squinted and could barely make out a large figure walking toward me, hand extended. I was able to pull him into clear focus, fully adjusted, before he reached me and I answered in the affirmative as I reached for his hand.
“I was hoping you would join us. Lars wasn’t sure you would follow through but I’m glad you’re here.” He turned back to look into the room but then yanked back toward me and hit the side of his head with an open palm. “I’m sorry, I’m being rude. My name is Joshua Brown and I’m facilitating this group. Come on in and let me introduce you to everyone.” Mr. Brown was a very large black man, dressed in jeans and a Hawaiian print shirt that screamed “clearance rack.” His head was shaved and his glasses rested on top of his dome, waiting for a call to duty. He grabbed my arm and pulled me along, making a beeline for a circle of chairs in the middle of the room, all occupied and every occupant staring at me as we approached.
Joshua broke the ice. “Fellows, this is Earl…” He hesitated.
“Benton.” I helped.
“—Benton and he’s here to observe and possibly join us full time in the future.”
“Hi, Earl.” In unison, with smiles. Two of the men waved. I suppressed the faint beginnings of a tingling sensation that started at the base of my neck, spreading quickly. I refused to fall into full creep out mode so quickly. I promised Dr. Cassidy I’d give the group a legitimate opportunity to do some good so my commitment overrode my tingle.
Someone said, “Pull up a seat and join us.” As I found an abandoned chair and walked it over to the circle, the group voluntarily lifted and pushed their chairs backwards, adjusting so I would fit. Joshua picked up the interrupted conversation by saying, “Let’s go around the circle and introduce ourselves, starting with you, Derrick.” Joshua pointed to an older man, maybe in his 60’s who was small, thin and dressed in a suit. He introduced himself and then nodded to his right, which started the chain reaction of spoken names and quick smiles performed admirably by all in the room. The introductions went by so fast that I couldn’t recall anyone’s name and for the first time in my life I yearned for name tags.
Joshua kicked off the meeting with a question and then opened the floor for discussion. I was glad to see they weren’t going to adjust the meeting due to my presence. Every man settled into his comfortable routine right away. As each person spoke, I was able to piece together most everyone’s saga, at least the main aspects of it. Most of the stories were similar, all dealing with broken relationships based on some idiotic choice they made whether it be having an affair, consuming too much booze or ignoring their wife for twenty years and assuming she’d always hang around. Each story was sad in its own way, but I could relate to none of them. I hadn’t cheated on Ellen, rarely overindulged in anything and I could never be accused of ignoring her. I was consumed with her, which was why I was attending the meeting in the first place. My situation was unique. I knew that and that knowledge was validated each time one of the men shared another slice of their story. After fifteen minutes I began to lose interest and started scanning the room. My initial reaction to the space was it was larger than it seemed from the outside but after sitting in the middle of it for 15 minutes, I realized it was actually very small. The floor wasn’t carpeted and was pocked with patterns of holes that were crudely filled in with spackle and paint, revealing where the pews had rested in the chapel’s original state. The walls were covered in cork board and burlap making it easier to pin event posters and children’s drawings on every available inch. Apparently the wall covering didn’t make it easier to remove anything because the postings were layers thick, much like the exterior paint, begging for a core sample to be taken with a chance to discover who was running the church bake sale in 1963. Hanging above and sometimes over the paper paint job were felt banners, most shaped as rectangles draped across wood dowels. Each marked an occasion or a happy thought, inspired by random parishioners through the years and all sentenced to hang in the old part of the church, never the new. Maybe they had some nice banners in the main sanctuary but the ones hanging in the chapel were less than professional. Communion, worship, and prayer were all celebrated along with admonitions to love the children, widows and orphans. Relegating them to this room was a way to be accepting and selective all at once. The entire landscape made me shudder, stirring the undulating waves of heaviness I was trying to ignore. The chapel was starting to give me the creeps, the tingle was spreading and the space seemed to be getting smaller with each minute that passed.
I refocused on the men talking, ignoring the shrinking room, and tried to latch on to what they were saying. A heavy man to my right was talking about how he regretted what he’d done but his wife hadn’t accepted his apologies nor forgiven him. He seemed genuinely sorry but I had just met him. He may have been one of those smooth talkers, a habitual liar who fooled a lot people for a long time but never as long as he fooled himself. There was no way of knowing with certainty after only thirty minutes, maybe not after thirty years. One thing I noticed about him as well as everyone else in the room, was their apparent lack of sadness. No one looked like I felt. They all seemed normal, laughing and smiling, as if they had come to terms with their fate. Were they not fighters? Were they in transition? Were they ahead of me or behind me in their journeys? Had I been normal at one time? Last fall? Last month? The heaviness had been with me so long I couldn’t remember when it wasn’t there, lurking around my center, waiting to be jostled so it could spill out and slither a little further into my system. Maybe they were all further down the road and being normal once again was on the horizon, something to look forward to. I didn’t dare ask; I was the new guy and my situation was special. What could they say to help me? But they should have at least been sad, even a little; that would have helped. I was disappointed, no, angry that they weren’t experiencing the heaviness like I was, dragging myself from point to point, trying to show a strong front to the masses. Maybe that was it… they were all acting, performing for their small group, not letting on they were dealing with the heaviness, the sadness, the pain of things not being right. If so, they were better at masking than I was. Either that or they weren’t dealing with as much, bearing a lighter burden, which made it easier to smile.
I sat back in my chair and leaned my head all the way back until I was staring straight at the ceiling. My eyes were hurting and lying back sometimes relieved the pressure. I turned my head slightly to the left and caught a glimpse of the stained glass windows framing the top of each wall. I sat up, aware of my rising heart rate and continued to study them, assuming there was a theme or concept but not sure where it began. I twisted in my seat and looked toward the front door, which seemed like a logical place to begin a concept if there was one at all. The heaviness made it difficult but I was able to shift and see that directly over the front door was a large window depicting a man standing, raising one hand over a man kneeling, his head bowed, a circle of thorns weaved into his hair. Obviously that was Jesus, which I might have been able to figure out without the aid of 45 years of indoctrination. I began looking carefully at each subsequent pane, my heart beating rapidly as the chapel walls breathed in and out, edging closer to me with each gasp. I wasn’t sure if the heaviness would let me move out of the way if they continued to encroach. Would I be crushed?
The technique used to create the artwork was very stylized and bizarre, using lots of sharp angles and random color, creating images that were disturbing. It took me a few minutes but I finally realized the stained glass panes were depicting the Stations of the Cross, a very Catholic method to display the events surrounding the crucifixion of Jesus. The one over the front door was the beginning, Pontius Pilate condemning Jesus. I quickly counted the individual panes and stopped at 14, one over each door and six on each sidewall. All of the stations were there, ending with the burial of Jesus. As I examined each window, now painfully aware of the concept, each pane revealed more of the story but with the knowledge came more anxiety and deeper depression. I felt the walls getting closer and the sadness getting heavier. Could the men from the group tell I was struggling? Could they see I needed to move but couldn’t? I needed to stand and walk, to pull some fresh air through my lungs, to get away from the walls with their felt, paper and glass propaganda, closing in and mocking me, belittling my sadness, laughing at my heaviness, laughing, laughing, laughing—
“Excuse me, I need to step out for a minute.” With a lot of effort I stood and found the door that emptied into the garden. I spotted a bench and sat down, my breathing heavy and only working in short, labored gasps. What was wrong with me? I had never reacted that way to anything, much less four walls and a roof. I had to wait a few minutes to let my physical body regain a semblance of normal functionality and I was relieved when I was able to breath with little effort. If only the emotional body had followed the path to normalcy my physical body had blazed. I sat on the bench, slumped over with my elbows resting on my knees, my eyes staring at the walkway between my feet. I wanted to leave, get in my car and drive home, but the sadness was too strong, too heavy. What I needed to do was rest for a few minutes, wait for all the turbulence in my mind and insides to taper off, then go home and sleep. Mornings were better, less sad and lighter.
This mess I was in had gone on too long. There was no way we, Ellen and D.J and Ben and I, weren’t supposed to be together. Damn it, Ellen! What was the hold up? None of it made sense, none of it. Why was I being punished for wanting a better job? A better life? Was she struggling without me like I was struggling without her? Dragging around, sad, fighting the heaviness? I doubted it and even if she was, my burden was greater because my situation was special. I made the decision and she refused to follow so I’m getting punished. Punished… that’s what it felt like. Punished by having to carry the sadness, straining under the heaviness for what? A decision someone else was making? But who was punishing me? Ellen? Myself? And who was supposed to answer all of these questions? I just kept asking them to the air, hoping they’d return to me with solutions attached. But there hadn’t been answers in a long time. The only response was the heaviness and each unanswered question increased the weight. And I was so heavy, so sad, so tired. I closed my eyes and sat there. Quiet. Still. Trying to produce the energy to walk to my car and leave but only generating more questions, launched into the void around me, knowing there wouldn’t be answers but having no choice but to continue the one-sided dialogue. Ellen, D.J., Ben, Wade, Susan, Wally, Rochelle, Dr. Leon, Dr. Cassidy… me. Wasn’t there anybody who could help? Anybody who could give me answers and direction?
Gone. It was the only way to describe the next second of my life. Gone. Vanished. The heaviness disappeared and left me in an instant. It wasn’t measured or escalating, just instantaneously gone. I didn’t move, not because I couldn’t but because I was afraid I might shift and somehow the heaviness would drop back on me like a lead lined cloak. What had just happened? I was grateful but perplexed. What had I been saying when it happened? Had I muttered some magic incantation, mingled them in just the right order that allowed some cosmic alignment to occur and wipe out my gloom? My memory was shrouded in an inky film making it hard to recall the exact words. I thought I was asking for help, for someone to give me answers… and then the heaviness disintegrated.
I quickly sat up straight and looked around. I was still in the garden in front of the chapel. My surroundings hadn’t changed, only me. I scanned the grounds, looking for anything that might give me an explanation of what had taken place, but it was still and calm, offering nothing but silence. I thought back to five minutes prior. I had been asking for help, for answers, and help had arrived. That meant there was something out there, something with power, and that something knew I existed. Or maybe I had done it on my own, finally mustering enough energy to shed the weight. But if it was me, why now? Why not last week? Last month? No, it had to be something else. It had to know who I was because it responded to my request. My request. It had heard me. I shuddered. If that was true, it had the potential to really screw things up. I had just gotten comfortable with my rejection of a Judeo/Christian God and then some mystical power reveals itself to me throwing my fresh unbelief system into a tailspin. But the heaviness was still gone, the sadness vaporized and had not returned. I was thankful but unsure of who or what to thank so I stood, made one more scan of the garden and went home.
This is an excerpt of a full length novel entitled “Back Again.” You can read it in it’s entirety by downloading it from here or you can keep coming back to this site and read it in chapter chunks over time. Your call but, either way, I hope you will read it and, most of all, enjoy it. And leave a comment or two. It lets me know you are out there…