Excerpt from my upcoming novel “Belly of the Church”

This would be his last church.  He had been retired for 14 years, but he had remained a part of the Presbytery’s life’s blood until the day he died; chairing committees, helping fledgling churches, helping struggling churches.  A man like Reverend Horace Glover could never really retire.

He was tireless in his duty, his love, for the church.  When he took us to Mount Petit Jean to camp on the Memorial Day after my third-grade year, it was the church that called him back for a funeral.  When I hit my first little league homerun, it was the church who needed him to chair an emergency session meeting.  When my mother first grew ill, it was the illness of the church that needed tending.  No, my father would never leave the church for anything or anyone, until this day, laid in a coffin in the back of a hearse laid in a coffin in the First Presbyterian Church of Peterson Oklahoma soon to be surrounded by all of those whom he had served and whose respect he had earned in his career of thirty-five years as a Presbyterian minister.

I would never be a son of Peterson.  I’d only ever been a visitor there.  My parents had moved there after I’d already left Arkansas to study journalism at Berkeley. I hadn’t been there since my mother’s funeral seven years before.  The town meant nothing to me.  It was merely the setting for the last phase of my parents’ life.

When I arrived at the church parking lot, my brothers Gabriel and Joseph were standing outside of the church next to the children’s playground.  Gabe, the youngest, was smoking a cigarette.  He was the first one to notice me.

“Here comes the biggest fucking commy reporter this side of East Jesus Nowhere,” he said, gesturing grandly toward me.

“That’s pretty big talk from a cross-eyed pussy,” I said, pointing out his lazy eye.

“Hey guys, cool it ok,” said Joe, practically whispering and lowering his arms into a shoosh position.

“Ease up, Joe, my dad just died,” I said, feigning grief.

“It’s about to start and I’ve signed us all up to be pallbearers along with Uncle John.”

“Uncle John, great,” said Gabe, rolling his eyes. “I swear to God that guy’s armpits haven’t seen the soft side of a deodorant stick since his pubes grew in.  It’s bad enough we got a dead guy stinking up the place.”

“Shut the fuck up, Gabe,” growled Joe.  Gabe never learned to shut his mouth, and Joe had spent the last thirty-three years trying to teach him.  “Look.  Here comes the hearse.  We’re on.”

Gabe extinguished his cigarette under his shoe.  I opened up the playground gate and we took a short cut passed the big toy, cedar chips crunching under our polished dress shoes.  By the time we arrived at the hearse, the funeral director and his sickly looking son were opening the back double doors.  Uncle John, a lean man with a gaunt, pointy face, was standing on the sidewalk with his hands clasped in front of him.  I’d never done this before and I wasn’t exactly sure what we were supposed to do at this point.

“Boys,” said the funeral director, softly and slowly, as if not to wake our father from his repose. “Let’s just step through this, ok? “  He was a fat, balding man of approximately 60 years of age and all of his movements and gestures had a certain swishy elegance to them. “Gabriel, you and Joe are going to take the front two handles and slide the coffin out a few feet.” Then he gestured to Joe and me. “Then Joseph, you and Mark are going to take the back two handles.  Grasp them firmly.”  He made an exaggerated gripping motion with both of his hands.  “We’ll open the door closest to the sanctuary and then you’re going to walk to the foyer and wait for my cue.  Are we all good here?  Are there any questions?”

“I’ve got one,” said Gabe, raising his hand. “What happens if we have to scratch our asses?  Do we take turns or do we scratch each other’s asses for them?”

The director let out a disappointed sigh, tilting his head a little bit to the left.  “You’ll just have to wait, I suppose,” he said, humorlessly.

The sight of my father’s coffin had a sobering effect on me.  Despite what had happened, he was still my father, and I still had feelings about his death, no matter how complicated they were.  He selected his own coffin, a shiny slate steel, but if he’d really had his way he’d have us chuck him into ground…ashes to ashes, dust to dust.  He intended for his body to be food for worms.  His soul, however, would be preserved, he’d said, by the grace of God.

It was not as heavy as I expected.  In the end, he was only half the man he’d once been.  His body had withered tremendously.  Not having seen him since Mom’s funeral, I hadn’t even recognized him at the viewing.  He had once been a giant to me.  And now as, I held his coffin, I could feel little of him inside.  He may as well have been bones at this point.

As we walked in from the summer heat, the air-conditioned hallway leading into the sanctuary cooled me like the damp wash cloths my mother used to press onto my hot forehead when I was feverish.  For nearly two weeks, it had been in triple digits there and in Little Rock, Arkansas, the city I called home.

We walked in step with each other for about twenty feet until we reached the narthex, which some churches call a foyer and which a contemporary non-denominational church might mundanely call a waiting room or a lobby.  The air was quiet and still except for the low, sustained tones of a pipe organ playing Bach’s “Sheep May Safely Graze” behind the closed sanctuary doors.

“Hey,” Gabe whispered. “What’s our cue?  The guy said there would be a cue.”

Joe nodded at the funeral director who had taken his place by the door on the right aisle. We would look to him for some sort of signal, probably when he opened the door and nodded sanctimoniously at us.

The fragrance of lilies weighed heavily in the air.  Its sweetness turned my stomach.  These were the same flowers that were at my mother’s funeral.  They had piled them all around her coffin, that and roses of all colors; red, white, pink, and yellow. She’d chosen lilies because they reminded her of all the Easters we’d spent together as a family, which were few and far between since I’d left for college.  Gabe had said, “If you want to think of Easter, how about we pile up a bunch of fresh-baked Virginia hams around the coffin.”

Gabe’s face was solemn now.  His eyes were on the funeral director.  My hand was beginning to sweat, and I began to worry that I would lose my grip, but then the director opened the door and we were walking.

As we carried the casket down the aisle, the organist was playing “The Old Rugged Cross”, which was not my father’s favorite hymn.  It was one of those hymns that was just expected at funerals whether you liked it or not.  This was how we mourned our dead:  Old Rugged Cross, Softly and Tenderly, Amazing Grace, and In the Garden.   I would sing these songs then with the sense of duty only felt by the son of a preacher.

We placed the coffin on its stand and took our seats with the family.  The preacher was a former colleague of Dad’s, Jordan Shepherd.  I pondered the absurdity of a preacher named Jordan Shepherd.  It seemed like a preacher stage name which combined Jordan River and the Good Shepherd.  I sat between Joe and my Aunt Gloria who after a Thanksgiving meal one year, when we were alone in the den, told me she liked a man who looked good both coming and going.  “You have a nice tush, Mark,” she’d said.

“Umm, thanks.  That’s very kind of you to say,” I said, disturbed and not sure what else to say.  What do you say when your mother’s sister complements your ass?  Thanks?  You have great tits?”

“And now, let us prepare our hearts for prayer,” intoned the Reverend Shepherd at the podium.  As he began to pray my mind wandered.  I thought about how many times I’d heard my dad say the exact same phrase.  In the Lonegrove church, he would rise from his chair, which always seemed like a throne to me as a child.  He wore a black robe and whichever colorful stole he’d chosen that day and would step to the podium in the center of the chancel which was above the Lord’s Table.

You couldn’t tell when you were sitting in the congregation, but if you were sitting with the choir, you could see that he had a habit of rolling up onto the balls of his feet as he spoke.  With a voice filled with holy might he uttered phrases like “Let us turn our hearts to God” and “Lift up your hearts” to which we were to reply “We lift them up to the Lord.”  As a child, my favorite moment in the service was the benediction.  It came at the very end of the service.  It was the moment right before my brothers and I would run back to the house and breathe in the smell of a Sunday roast.  He would step down from the chancel, slowly and with purpose, and stop right in front of the Lord’s table where the cross and candles and offering plates, and once a month, the vessels for the Lord’s Supper lay, so that he was on an eye level with the standing congregation and raise is right hand saying “May the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ and the love of God and the fellowship of the Holy Spirit be with you all.”  There was unseen power in his raised hand in these words.  They sealed the deal.  This was the closest thing to the act of a super hero that I ever saw as a child.

The church was a magic place for me, at least until I knew what my father truly was.  It was a place where promises were made with water, where communion with the living dead was made through grape juice in plastic shot glasses and with tiny biscuits.  Money was collected in plates and given to God supernaturally, so I’d believed.  The first of many disappointments for me was when I learned that the money that people put in the shiny brass plates went to pay the electric bill and my father’s salary.

The church could be a terrifying place for me, too.

I promised myself I wouldn’t cry for this man, but at the end of the service when Reverend Jordan Shepherd raised his right hand and spoke those powerful words, I felt something begin to break inside of me.  My heart had already been broken, but there was regret and anger and hatred that could be opened up fresh.  It welled up inside of me until I could no longer contain it and it dripped out of me in hot, wet tears.

And then I could hear her voice.  I knew it was just in my head, but she spoke to me this way when I was beginning to feel all alone in this world.  She said, “Honey bunch, you gotta forgive this man or it’s going to eat you up one day.  I’ve already forgiven him, and if you want an ounce of peace in your precious life, you’ve got to do the same.”  For a moment, I could feel her close to me, I could smell the perfume I’d bought for her on every one of our wedding anniversaries.  But it passed, as it always did.

After the service and the interment, my brothers and I headed for Nellie’s for a drink.  Gabe was quiet, as if he’d just been in a car wreck and hadn’t quite realized what had happened, and Joe was thoughtful.

“Dad was a lot of things, but –“ began Joe.

“Don’t.  Just don’t,” I interrupted.  “I can’t sit here and listen to you extol a sorry son of a bitch like the Reverend,” I said, brusquely and slamming the rest of my double shot of sweet Kentucky straight whiskey.

Then Gabe broke his silence and said, “I went back once, last year.  It’s still the most beautiful little town in Arkansas, but it’s still the same.  You can see it in people’s eyes.”

“I wouldn’t go back to that fucked up town if you paid me,” I said, motioning to the bartender for another one.

The bartender, a short balding man with tufts of salt and pepper hair growing out of his ears discreetly poured me another and I stared at it in angry silence.

Joe put his hand on my shoulder for a moment without saying anything.

“Mark.  I know that he hurt you and disappointed you, but this is a day for letting go.  This is a day to put it to rest, to put yourself at rest.  You’ll never be able to change who dad was.  You’ll never be able to change what he did to you.  Never.”

But I didn’t want to hear it.  He didn’t deserve to be forgiven for what he had done to me; to us.