“And may the sign of the Southern Cross
Be some comfort to you when you’re lost,
And may the devil’s evil eye, Pass you by.”
—Glen Hansard, ‘Winning Streak’ Didn’t He Ramble (2015)
Despite our touching reunion in the cab of the truck, neither of us has much to say when we part ways. There is no hug or tender goodbye, no rousing speeches. We do look at each other in the eye, which is more than we’ve been able to manage in several decades. I suppose that’s saying something.
Before I leave, I thank him for saving my life, and he tells me to be careful. Simple and direct. With that, he was gone, leaving me standing in the road as we both head off to confront our separate fates, whatever they may be.
As I stand in the gravel turnout looking at Karl’s black Mustang, I feel a strong sense of vindication. I suppose I should feel remorse, some gnawing guilt at having dumped his body into one of Gil Grady’s sinkholes, but I don’t feel any guilt at all. While I should probably see his cold, black eyes or the bloody gash on his neck, when I close my eyes, all I can see is that mocking smile. The one that crept across his lips the moment he found me tied to that chair. Though the idea of scoring points on a dead man is a bit asinine, I can’t help but feel like my unceremonious theft of Karl’s favorite possession somehow put me ahead on the cosmic ledger. Given how close he came to putting a bullet in the back of my head, I figure a bit of bravado is allowed. Either way, Karl is lying at the bottom of a muddy sinkhole, and as a matter of practicality, he really doesn’t need transportation of any kind.
When the engine roars to life, I’m not really not sure where I’m headed, but as my father already pointed out, I have to go somewhere. Staying in Culver County is simply not an option. The only thing that makes any sense is following the road in front of me, so that’s what I do. Press the gas pedal and follow the road north out of town.
When I flip on the stereo, one of Karl’s terrible old CDs filters through the speakers, some kind of new age, techno-pop garbage. When I click the CD over to the radio, WYMG is playing a Rush song, again, which is only marginally better.
After twenty minutes of mindless driving, I find myself pulling into a parking space in front of St. Patrick’s Church on the outskirts of Drury. As I step out of the car, the sun is just beginning to rise, casting an orange glow against the silhouette of the church.
I had attended St. Patrick’s every Sunday of my life when I was growing up. Tommy and I sat with our mother in the fourth pew from the front, on the left-hand side of the isle. Every Sunday. Without fail. It would be logical to assume that a mother might have a crisis of faith when she heard the news of her baby boy’s cancer, but my mother’s faith never wavered, not once. In fact, when Tommy got really sick, the only time she left his bedside was Sunday morning at 9 am. Long after the funeral when I had begun to question God and the church and the whole lot of it, she still drug her ass to this place, and sat down in the same spot on the same pew she’d occupied for several decades.
When we were little, she worked for a while in the parish office. Running copies and putting together the Sunday bulletin and other various tasks. She would often bring Tommy and me there at night, and we’d run around the dark, empty halls, eventually sneaking into the sanctuary, though she didn’t like us playing around on ‘holy ground.’
The church was built in the 20’s, before the Great Depression made America aware of the scarcity of resources. It was the kind of opulent, grand building that would be nearly impossible to recreate, either because the craftsmen are no longer skilled enough or the materials would be too expensive.
Even as I boy, I marveled at the intricate masonry and ornate carpentry that went in to making such an impressive building. It wasn’t a large church, but it was fancy and filled with the kind of embellishments that, even then, seemed out of place in rural America.
I remember playing hide in seek with Tommy late at night while Mom worked in the office. That same building that always seemed so warm and welcoming on Sunday morning was absolutely terrifying at night in the dark.
To me, all empty churches have a tendency to feel a bit creepy. We’re supposed to feel the presence of God there, but when the place is empty I’ve always felt something different, a more sinister presence. At least, that was how I felt as a kid. It’s hard to say how I feel now, since I haven’t stepped foot in a church for many years.
With nothing else to do, I try the front door, but it is locked. I walk around to the side door of the building and kick over a rock a few feet from the landing to find the extra key. Even though thousands of people must know the key’s location by now, there has never been any need to move it. Culver County is nothing if not predictable.
I unlock the door and walk into the stifling stillness of the sanctuary, the whole room still shrouded in shadow because the sun is not yet high enough to flow through the stained glass. As I walk and sit down in our ‘family’ pew, that sinister presence reappears. I can feel it, the same as I did when I was a child. The Catholic indoctrination would say that I’m feeling the weight of unconfessed sin, but sitting here, I know that’s not quite right. I know because my sins are so much worse now than they ever were before, but the feeling is exactly the same. I wouldn’t call it the presence of God, but it’s impossible to ignore that there is something, something beyond the realm of ordinary understanding, hanging in the air.
Maybe it’s ghosts. After all, I’ve been thinking about spooks and specters since the moment I drove into town. Maybe the spirits are quite real, a tangible presence left over from the living, the remainders of unfinished lives, drawn back to the very place that they inhabited in their physical form.
Or maybe it was something else.
I know exactly why my mother kept coming to church each Sunday while Tommy wasted away in that hospital. I know why she drove over an hour round trip to bounce back and forth. She was taking residence in her chosen spot to pray for a miracle. To ask for guidance to get through, to stick to the company line—let your will be done, Lord—but also to pray for an honest miracle. To reach out to God on his turf and ask him to spare the life of her youngest son.
Those prayers went unanswered.
She was drawn to this place because she believed, with an unaltered and perfect faith, that God was going to spare Tommy, one way or the other. Prayers and belief that are powered by that kind of conviction must have a real weight. Just like an arbitrary choice or a causal word can manifest itself into real word consequences, our prayers and our hopes have weight. They exist in a very real, visceral way, and this room is a warehouse for all those desperate desires. An everlasting museum dedicated to the preservation of unrequited longing.
Aimee had shared that kind of faith, too. Faced with an absolute lack of options, I wish I could muster even half of that faith. I wish I could knock on Aimee’s door right now, or—better yet—conjure my mother’s spirit from the grave. I would ask them both, what should I do now? Where should I go?
Of course, I already know their answer, and maybe that’s what brought me to this place. Maybe, without thinking, I had been headed here from the moment my father pulled me off of that bluff.
I crouch down onto the leather-covered kneeler in front of the pew, and I do my best to pray. At first, nothing comes. I have no idea how to start this conversation. It has been too long, and all of the standard catechism prayers have long since dissolved from my memory. I feel silly and hypocritical, and I desperately want to stand up, walk out of the double-doors and never come back. To leave God behind physically as well as mentally. Deep down, though, I know that I don’t have anywhere to go.
So, I stay.
I stay, and I kneel, and I try to pray.
I stay in part because I feel like I owe it to my mother, and to Aimee, and even to Caroline. I owe it to all of the women who have appeared in my life and presented me with an example of faith. Each and every one of them managed to see the world in full and complete perspective that I could never understand.
I kneel and try to pray because it’s what they all would have suggested, in one way or another. I’m sure an armchair psychologist would find meaning in that, me being drawn to girls that fill a role once occupied by my mother, Oedipal complexes and all that.
If you ask me, though, all of that shit—psychological theories and subconscious desires—that’s all a complete load of shit. The handful of times I’ve visited a psychiatrist, I haven’t been able to find any meaningful catharsis or epiphany. In my experience, if you’re looking to find a great truth within yourself, you’re better off standing on a riverbank, or finding some plateau on an open plane and watching a sunset, not sitting on some asshole’s leather furniture.
Of course, there’s little difference between that and what I’m doing right now—kneeling on a poorly padded rail and attempting to pray to a God that I’ve already sworn off a dozen times in my life. The desperate clinging to blind hope for salvation. Pathetic.
However hypocritical it is, I find myself here, and I have no idea what else to do, so I push myself to pray. The one and only prayer that really comes to mind. One that we prayed every day at church. One that my mother made us pray every single night.
Our father who art in heaven, hallowed be thy name….
I pray the words of the only prayer that I can remember because it seems like my only option. It seems like the only thing I can do in this moment that won’t lead to a complete and utter breakdown. A fracturing of my soul.
…Give us this day our daily bread…
I continue to pray and hope for the epiphany. The clichéd ‘sign’ that will tell me where to go next.
…lead us not into temptation…
I just need a push in the right direction. A nudge towards a highway that ends in some kind of hope.
…For thine is the kingdom, and the power, and the glory….
When I finish, and there is no epiphany, so I pray again. This time louder and with more anger.
This is what I’m supposed to do? This is where I’m supposed to be? Isn’t this what you want? Isn’t this what you demand as you sit upon on your gilded throne? You want penance for the decisions, the misguided attempts at filling the holes you left in my life? Fine! You can have it. You can have it over and over again, until I’ve got nothing left.
…Thy kingdom come, Thy will be done…
I pray and I pray until my knees ache. I pray aloud until my voice goes horse and my throat throbs. I shout the words of the prayer, and the sounds echo off the cold stone walls of that empty, sanctified room. I pray until I am ready to collapse, weak from a night that I never thought would end, and still covered with blood and dirt and all manner of filth. I pray until the words stop flowing from my lips. Until I can no longer say another word.
And then…it happens.
As surely as the morning sunlight pours through the stained glass windows. As surely as the echo resonates across the floor.
The epiphany comes.
Sometime after the twentieth or thirtieth prayer, I realize where I have to go.