“I’ll get it, you cook!” Someone was knocking at the front door, which I found odd for Sunday morning. Ellen was making omelets in the kitchen and I was in charge of toast so it was easier for me to find out who was behind the knock. I looked through the peephole in the door and saw that it was kids, three of them, all high school aged with serious looks on their faces. I opened the door and was immediately greeted with smiles, switched on at the sound of the doorknob turning.
“Good morning, sir. We’re visiting your neighborhood today conducting a survey, trying to get a feel for some of the attitudes and thoughts of the people who live here. Would you like to take a few minutes to answer a brief list of questions?” The person speaking was tall and thin with closely cropped hair. His two comrades were standing behind him, one looking at me and the other, wearing a hat, stared at the ground. The speaker had memorized the greeting and rushed through it, hoping to get to the end before I either cut him off or shut the door. I did neither and the smile on my face probably surprised him.
“So you guys are still around, eh?” Just hearing the opening monologue swung me back to that summer in Buffalo and I felt that same knot form in my stomach. It may have never left.
“No sir, this is our first day in your neighborhood. You must be confusing us with some other people.” He was still smiling and had no idea the depth of my first question, plumbing nearly 20 years of memories and angst.
“I must have. Oh well, you guys want to ask me some questions, right? Fire away.” I noticed the fellow in the back, the one looking at his feet, seemed to flinch when I agreed to take the survey. I sympathized with him. I was he at one time and he was not prepared for what I was getting ready to bring.
“Fantastic, sir. We really appreciate it.” Leader boy pulled his clipboard in front of him, keeping it high enough to read but low enough to keep his face in full view throughout the session. He was a veteran and the two fellows with him were probably rookies, trying to gain some confidence by watching the old pro at work. “First question: Does your household attend church?”
I was a little surprised by the blunt tenor of the first question. Usually they start with something far more generic. “No, I do not attend a church.” I decided to leave Ellen out of the equation since she was not technically part of the household in which I was residing.
“Very good. Next question: Are there any problems you see in the church in general today?”
I decided to quit messing around and see what these guys were made of. “Only that everyone in the churches is praying to a non-existent deity and pretty much wasting their time.” I smiled and looked for reactions. Leader boy may have been surprised but covered it well. The kid in the back who was making eye contact was still smiling but his eyes were now wide and unblinking. I noticed a discernible drop in the shoulders of the other boy, but he continued to look down.
“Wow, okay… interesting answer. Question three: If you could make changes in the church, what changes in the church would you like to see take place?” Leader boy looked at me, smiling but anticipating the worst.
“Good question… hmmm… I’d have to say I’d like to see more honesty from the leadership, letting the poor souls sitting in front of them every week know that there are some things that cannot be explained. They don’t have all the answers; I just wish they’d admit it.” Leader Boy was writing my answers down as fast as possible. I was concerned that Smiley was going to faint because I saw no signs of life coming from him, just a frozen smile and dry eyes.
“Next question: If you were to consider going to a church, what would that church need to be (in terms of qualities) for you to go there?”
“Free meals would be nice.”
Leader Boy perked up. “You mean have a soup kitchen, feed the homeless, be involved in social causes?”
“No, not really. I was thinking in terms of free meals for me. If I knew I could get a hot meal every time I attended I would be apt to go when I was hungry or a little short on cash.” The answer was over the top and nasty and I was surprised when Leader Boy decided to continue.
“Oh, I see… okay, let’s keep going. Question five we can skip—”
“—what’s it say?”
He looked at me, unsure of my motives but decided to soldier forward and play the game. “If a new church were to start in your neighborhood, would you consider going to this church?”
“Only if I get my free meal. See, I had an answer. Next!” I was having fun. Leader Boy, Smiley and The Hat were not.
“Thanks…” He wrote down my answer and continued but not before taking a deep breath and visibly swallowing. “Who is Jesus Christ according to your understanding?”
Now we were getting somewhere. “I know the answer that’s expected—the Son of God, Savior of the Universe—but if it’s based on my understanding, I’ll have to say that Jesus Christ is someone who I spent the better part of my life trying to understand and emulate to no avail.”
To Leader Boy’s credit, he went off script and asked, “What do you mean ‘to no avail?’”
“It just wasn’t happening for me. There were too many holes, too many things that didn’t add up and I got really tired of trying to ignore them. Since, after 45 years, I wasn’t getting very good answers, I decided I was looking in the wrong place. Next!”
Leader Boy stared at me, more questions flashing through his head, none of which were listed on the sheet in front of him, but he chose to return to the script. His companions were now useless, beyond any verbal or moral support, swaying behind him like scarecrows. He was alone. “Question seven: If you were to die tonight, do you know for sure whether or not you would go to heaven?”
“Yes.” My simple answer confused him so he tried a follow up question.
“Yes, what? Will you or will you not go to heaven?”
“That wasn’t the question. You asked if I knew for sure whether or not I would go to heaven. The answer is yes, I know for sure whether or not I would go to heaven. If you want me to answer the other question, then it needs to be worded more clearly.”
“Whatever…” Leader Boy was officially aggravated with me and I, too, was growing weary of the game but I was committed to hanging in as long as he was willing to play. “Next question: If someone were to come up to you and say, ‘I want to go to heaven! What must I do to get there?’ What would be your answer to him?”
“I would say there was zero proof that heaven exists but if you want to find out definitively whether it does or does not exist, you need to die. That’s the only way to get there if it exists at all.” Leader Boy didn’t even bother to write my answer down. He was through with me and made the decision to cut the interview short.
“Well, that’s all the questions I have. I want to thank you for taking the time to answer our survey. Have a nice day.” He was able to recover enough to bring forth his big smile and he shook my hand. As the three of them left the space in front of my door, I was betting that my address was going into their database with red flags attached to it. That meant one of two things: I was never going to be visited again or I was going to have people at my door every week. A pariah or a project, a distinction only they could decide. I laughed to myself, thinking about what minor hell I had just put those three kids through and then I turned into the condo and shut the door. I was startled by the sight of Ellen, standing in the middle of the empty living room, tears streaming down her face. I immediately registered the look on her face as extreme pain but made the mistake of thinking it was physical.
I ran toward her, asking questions and trying to see where she was hurt. “What’s wrong? Are you okay? Did you burn yourself?” As I got near her she pulled away and shuddered with a new round of tears. “What? Talk to me!”
She turned toward me slowly and stared. I looked into her eyes and felt as far away from her as ever. The look was cold and void of anything positive; gaps opened up all through me, big and vast, causing my breath to echo in my ears. I wanted to grab her but nothing emanating from her face or body gave me any indication that was going to happen.
“Would you please tell me what’s wrong?”
“Yeah, I’ll tell you. What’s wrong is I just realized I was wrong. Wrong about you and wrong about my ability to handle all of this.”
“Where’d that come from?” My voiced sounded pinched and whiny but I was thrilled that I still had the ability to speak. “Last night—”
“—forget last night!” she interrupted. “Forget this weekend and forget any promises I made about being ready to move up here!” She was mad and her face was turning a glowing shade of crimson as she spoke.
“Whoa, whoa, whoa… you’ve got to tell me what’s going on here. What caused this about face? This isn’t making any sense!”
“And that’s the point. You have no idea. Did you hear yourself giving those answers to those kids? Do you have any recollection of what you said to them?”
“Oh come on, I was just having some fun. I just wanted to freak them out a little bit. I’ve been in their shoes. It’ll give them something to talk about tonight when they’re drinking their cocoa.” I tried on a smile but it didn’t fit.
She stood there, staring at me, a look of disbelief on her face. “The fact that you aren’t understanding me tells me all I need to know.”
“Stop talking in riddles and tell me why you’re mad at me. It can’t be because of how I treated those kids!”
“Well, you’re right about that. The kids are irrelevant although I don’t envy their youth leader.” She was still mad but had calmed down enough that the color in her face was returning to a natural hue. There was nowhere to sit so she leaned against a wall, her arms folded across her stomach. “After you left the kitchen to answer the door, I waited a few minutes and then went to check on you. When I got to the middle of the room, I could hear the direction of the conversation so I stopped and listened.”
She looked at me like that was enough explanation. It wasn’t. “And…?” I asked.
“Do you have any idea how offensive your answers were to me? Do you have any memory of what I believe that helps you comprehend how hurt I am by what you said? And it wasn’t just the answers, it was your tone, your attitude. You were making fun of me!”
“No I wasn’t! I was making fun of the stupid questions on the survey!” I was yelling, frustrated that something this trivial could have such an impact.
“You really don’t get it, do you?” She was getting calmer, which was irritating. “How could you lose every bit of your sensitivity so fast? News flash, Earl: I’m still a Christian. I still cherish and love my relationship with Jesus. It’s still the most important thing in my life. When I hear you standing there, systematically ridiculing what I believe with absolutely no remorse, it makes me sick to my stomach.”
“I’m sorry, I’m sorry, okay? I didn’t realize you were behind me!” The minute the words left my mouth I knew it was a mistake.
“Exactly. You didn’t know I was behind you. Does that mean you would have given different answers if I had been standing with you?”
I couldn’t answer that and I don’t think she expected me to.
“You’ve been messing with me, Earl. You’ve been hiding some cards and haven’t been honest with me. I can’t tell you how much that hurts me.”
“How is this being dishonest? Seriously, you knew that’s how I felt. Those answers couldn’t have been a surprise to you. Granted, I’ve never verbalized it before in quite that cavalier fashion, but, come on, you expected something different? We’ve avoided any religious talk all weekend for this very reason.”
“I’ll give you that. Accusing you of being dishonest may be unfair but that doesn’t mean your honesty didn’t hurt me.”
“Again, I’m sorry.” I hesitated, waiting to see if the apologies were making any dent in her pain. Unsure, I tried a different approach. “So what does all of this have to do with the time table for you joining me?”
She looked down at her hands, absently picking the nail polish off her thumb. Without looking up she said, “Remember last night when I wished I could get a glimpse of what’s going on inside of you? Something to show me how your decision is affecting area’s I can’t see?”
“Well that’s what happened. Your conversation with those kids was the glimpse I was looking for and what I saw was ugly. At least it was to me… I guess it surprised me you could be so flippant, so soon, about something that had been so important for so long. Seeing that makes me wonder if I’m ready to live with that attitude full time.”
“But I can watch what I say, be careful to not say things that will hurt you. People do that all the time about all sorts of things.”
“I’m sure you could do that but it wouldn’t be honest. Have you ever had to watch what you said around me before?” I just looked at her, both of us knowing the answer. “You know how much I value the honesty of our relationship. Living here and knowing how you felt, whether you spoke the truth or not, doesn’t change the fact that you think my core beliefs are a joke. I’m not ready to live like that just yet, wondering what you’re thinking, trying to figure out if you’re laughing with me or at me. I’m sorry, but I can’t do it. Not yet, anyway.” She finally looked at me, shook her head and pushed herself away from the wall. As she walked toward the bedroom she said in a voice devoid of any soul or emotion, “The eggs are probably cold but they’ll be edible. I’m going to take a shower and start packing.”
I stood in the living room, not thinking about eggs, showers or suitcases but about missed opportunities. In fifteen minutes my outlook swerved from unbounded hope to crushing despair. For the first time I wasn’t sure what to say or do, so I stood there, not moving, waiting for something to propel me forward to… where? I had no idea. The destination really didn’t matter anymore because I was apparently going to be traveling alone.
We left for the airport as soon as Ellen was packed even though it put us in the terminal three hours before her flight departed. On the way I attempted every form of persuasion in my charm arsenal, trying to get Ellen to change her mind, although I knew it was a futile campaign from the start. I stopped just short of being pathetic. Besides, I had very little energy to use as fuel for my argument. The dead spot Ellen created earlier that morning was spreading and most of my vital organs had succumbed. The lack of sensation in the deep chambers of my emotions was frightening as well as comforting. Numb was more desirable than pain.
After an hour of silence in the airport, I decided to leave her to her own thoughts and we said goodbye. It was short and passionless, both of us hurting in our own ways and neither willing to do the one thing that would alleviate the pain in each other. Neither willing nor able.
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…