Can I come in pastor? There’s a burnin inside me.
Best out of the doorway then. Come and sit.
I’m goin to hell pastor.
There was a day when I thought I’d be shortstop for the Cardinals but here we sit. How can I help you?
He put his face in the one hand he had left. I’ve had a vision and they’re arranging my stay in Hades. There’s a stone bed beside a cold fire. Have you ever had a vision like that pastor?
In a setting like this it’s best you don’t call me that. There are those titles that let you believe a person is suited for more than they are.
I’ve done wrong, real bad. And I know before long I’m goin to pay for it.
The pastor put a manuscript of Sunday’s message in his desk drawer and straightened his day planner. You come to tell me where you’re going or how you’re getting there? I’ve got an elder meeting in twenty but I can move it if today is that day.
It’s 1999 pastor.
There’s a new millennium coming, I’m aware.
Do you believe that?
Do I believe what?
There will be something new about this millennium we’ll soon here enter.
I suppose planes will get to where they’re going faster. And maybe we’ll wake up one morning to find half the monkeys have turned to robots, all in one night. He snapped his fingers after he said robots.
What do you mean?
Well first they sent chimps into space. Then men. And now they say humans will not walk on mars. I’ve heard they’re saving that for robots. And if that’s not a three-act play in completion then I am no one’s pastor.
Well I’ll have to think about that.
How about you. Any new discoveries waiting around this corner?
He picked at his cuticles with his thumb, inspecting them as though a world of ecosystems lay pulsing beneath the skin flakes. For almost thirty years I’d say I lived without feeling anythin I would call new. But this here, today. This is a new place. And I’m so afraid of it pastor.
What are we afraid of, friend?
I’ve hurt people I shouldn’t’ve. But it wasn’t me who did it, not really.
More often than I thought possible.
I should tell you now I’m not much for confession. I know the weight of this stuff can become too much to bear, but I am no priest, and my backpack’s no emptier than yours. Nor is it bigger.
I didn’t say anything about no backpack.
The pastor had a clock on his wall and its second hand scratched ahead, each tic providing its own echo. Why don’t you say what brought you in here. Or we can go for a walk, buy you a coffee. I’ll tell the elders spend another hour in prayer.
How are your kids, pastor? The kids alright?
Kids are fine, I appreciate your asking. The youngest loves McGwire and the oldest loves prehistoric geology. She’s working on a globe to recreate the world in a Pangeic state, says she longs for a time when there was one land, one ocean. I’ve been meaning to ask her if that’s science or philosophy but she’s smarter than I, so I tend to let her go.
That’s good to hear. I really am glad to hear they’re doin well.
They sat in the quiet of a moment in its becoming. And how are you my friend?
Pastor I ask your forgiveness—
I’ll stop you there, for of forgiveness I am no dealer. Think of me as a road sign. I’ve only set out to lead you to the source.
Pastor all I mean is I’m too tangled up to speak.
I’ve got this meeting soon. We’re deciding whether to repave the parking lot or build a kitchen in the fireside room. It’s the day’s work. How about later I buy you a beer and we shoot some pool. I’ll even hold the bridge thing for you. Tonight after I get the kids to bed I’ll meet you at the Dutch Goose. How about it?
He winced, and the space between his ears and shoulders shrunk. You don’t understand.
Will you tell me what I don’t?
Pastor, it’s been bad, and for real long.
Look. It’s neither news nor sin to know a man can be many things, though of course some go farther than others. I understand you were in one grizzly war and you understand that I was not. You know what I tend to think of these matters. Sun Tzu said the essence of war is deception, and I think that’s especially true for a general and his soldiers. A nation and its citizens. Though pagan I am not I do believe war has its own gods and they tend to put a word in for men like you. So on that day I believe you’ll be forgiven. I wouldn’t worry about it.
His face again was in his hand. He looked through his fingers at the carpet between his knees. It ain’t about that.
Correct me if I’m wrong but you’ve not a wife to cheat on.
It ain’t of that nature.
Friend I can only participate in this as much as you do.
A frozen calm, numb as marble, came into his head and chest. Pastor, how is your boy? Healthy, growing up good?
The pastor put three fingers on his windproof lighter and spun it counter clockwise. Benny is healthy and within the Lord’s keeping. Though as his Sunday school teacher you might know his faith better than I do. So I’ll ask you, how is my boy?
Pastor, how long have I been your Sunday school teacher?
You’ve been my one-armed wingman for a decade plus one.
And in that time I don’t know if you’ve once come to visit me while I’m teachin.
Well. We each have our flock. Tend to be preaching at the same time. Are you upset with me?
He began to sweat, and the window light made a dim shine against his wet, leathery skin. He laughed through his nose. I can be a factory of bad ideas.
There was dry air gathering in the roof of the pastor’s mouth. You came in here with some concerning predictions about the eternal destination of your soul. Is this something you still want to discuss with me?
They stopped draftin in 1971 pastor. Do you know what year I graduated high school?
I’m guessing you just told me.
Seventy. And we didn’t want to go, of course we didn’t want to. So we said we’d do anythin they asked us except carry a gun. Personally that was my war, that I was goin to fight a war without carryin no gun. So we made a plan that I’m gonna be a medic and he’s gonna be a radio man. So we went and the first thing you learn after many others is who they shoot first. You don’t know that, though. Who they shoot first pastor.
Seeing as I’ve never known you as a man with four limbs I’d say you were among those shot. Though first or last I could not say.
First they shoot the red cross, then they shoot the radio man. They shoot them first because once they’re taken, the rest of us get helicopters sent to come and take us away. Take us right back to base. Because with no medic and no radio you can’t fight no war.
We’ve spoken about this. Decided you’d be safer with a gun, though that didn’t keep you from it, either.
He sat inhumanly still, looking at the air in front of his nose with gray eyes that looked to be holding the steam of some fissure within his skull. I once told your boy what I just told you. Is that wrong, pastor?
You know. I’d say an unnecessary thing is not exempt from being inevitable.
I don’t know what to think of that.
I’m like any parent in that I wish to keep my children from the worst of this world, though I allow little hope that the worst of this world keeps a diary of my wishes.
There’s been a question burnin inside me pastor. I can’t say why but for a long time I’ve been wonderin what your boy would’ve done.
I don’t mean nothin by it. But my mind wanders when I hold him. There’s this way it feels I’m holdin myself but that it’s not me who’s inside me. The edge of myself, it’s a thing I don’t understand. I don’t know where the self I know ends and someone else begins.
The pastor sat back in his chair and looked again at the man before him. Sorry, you’re going to have to help me understand the context in which you hold my Ben. And how he works into your war stories.
He sucked his checks between his molars and bit down. Pastor I’m goin to be in hell long before I could understand enough to tell it.
It appears time you told me what you came to say.
Pastor you don’t know the happenings inside me. I don’t think you can speak to it. You’ve disqualified yourself.
You came in here to say something and now you need to say it.
Thing is I was raised right. No one ever done harm to me. But for as long as I can remember I been afraid unto death that somethin bad would be my fault. This was a long time ago, and now that fear seems a warm blanket. I’d give it all to have it back. And I don’t know what to make of that. There was somethin else inside me but I didn’t want to know what it was. I should’ve stopped a long time ago pastor.
The pastor held a choking grip on the right leg of his desk. So tell me what it is you didn’t stop.
He began to laugh and it looked like he would cry. Like he was both damp and dehydrated. I crossed a line some time ago but it was someone else who crossed it. Dragged me cross it against my will.
Get out of my office.
Has my Ben been hurt?
That’s not it.
Then what is it?
Forgive me pastor. I really am sorry. But I was born without the bones that let you do what you wished you did.
A ghost in his last set of clothes, he stood from his chair and turned to leave. From the open doorway he looked back to the pastor. Do you want me to close this?
What kind of question is that.