This Mortal Coil

As the choir brings the psalm to life, Fr. Daniel taps one finger on the armrest, in time to the beat of his own impatience. Seeing Samuel squirm in Stacy’s arms, and seeing Stacy rock him, ever so slightly, and seeing Joseph tap his fingers and shift his feet and adjust his tie and look everywhere but at Stacy and Samuel as the choir approaches the refrain… Really, it makes him more sad than impatient. He had held and baptized both of them eighteen years ago; he had confirmed both of them; he had spoken to both of them about their choice in colleges, a little over a year-and-a-half ago; and now this baby, when Joseph is still a boy, and Stacy still a girl. Her face is pale, while Samuel’s glows pink.

Once, the Christ, too, was pure. Fr. Daniel looks up at the great stained-glass window across from him, where the Christ-child is curled against Mother Mary’s robes of robin’s egg blue. They scourged him, and chunks of flesh landed in the sands of Jerusalem and were eaten by ravenous birds, and his mutilated body hung from a cross until it was finished, and Mary’s tears mingled with the blood of her son.

Samuel grabs his mother’s necklace, and she peels his fingers off the little pendant, smiling a true, joyful smile.

Fr. Daniel does not remember when he last believed in the words he speaks and the rites he gives. They are words and gestures that comfort the sick and the desperate, and that is sufficient, but still, they are words and gestures, words and gestures alone. His heart is for pumping blood; his only conviction is that of blood, that it will move through his veins and arteries and then, one day, stop. When he eats the Eucharist, he swallows starch. How could he baptize, how could he hold their baby above his head and say with a sincere smile, “Welcome Samuel into the Church!” Samuel’s right hand is suspended just above his mouth and his eyes are fixed on a small window near the tops of the columns. Samuel would know that he was lying; they always knew, this was why they cried when he touched them. They knew he’d damned them with his false words. How many had he, how many—he couldn’t bear to dwell on it, all those grateful faces, all that amused laughter as the baby squealed during the benediction, no, no, the second reading has begun, he needs to focus on that, so that at least his homily will be sincere.

That morning, Stacy worried they would have to reschedule. “It’s raining really hard, Joseph,” she said. “I know,” he said. She felt him approaching behind her; she did not resist when he wrapped his arms around her waist and rested his chin on her shoulder. “We’re going to be okay,” he murmured, and, despite herself, because she knew he was not talking about the weather, she felt as she did the first time he’d touched her, in Mr. Jacobson’s English class, passing a stapler—thrilled, scared, stupid, special—and she felt herself relaxing in his warmth. “You think so?” she said. “Yes,” he breathed. “Things are clearing up.”

Meanwhile, their parents were drinking coffee in the living room, talking, grandparents to grandparents, and their hair still wasn’t grey, and their joints didn’t ache, but it was nice their children had agreed to a baptism, yes, so nice, and it was going to be a blessed day, introducing this child conceived out-of-wedlock into the community of the Church, secretly, a part of me is angered that we have to do this, secretly, I would prefer that Samuel did not exist, I won’t say that to the others, these scones are delicious, Mary, did you make them yourself, yes, they were Stacy’s favorite when she was a little girl, our Joseph never cared much for sweets, he preferred his jams and his pretzels, oh that’s different, most children love candy, no M&M’s or anything like that, no Joseph was a different boy, a very sweet child, yes, I remember that about him, he still says “I love you” and at his age, you don’t hear many boys doing that, well, I’m sure he will be a good father to our grandchild, oh yes, undoubtedly yes, he will be a good father to our grandchild, who is sleeping in the old rocker that we pulled out of the attic, before the delivery, I thought we’d thrown it away, it feels like he was in it, just yesterday, dribble sliding down his chin.

His mother’s necklace is warm in Samuel’s palm. He is floating, floating, he remembers when he was floating, his mother’s voice moving through him. You are my sunshine, my only sunshine, you make me happy, when skies are gray.

Joseph had not wanted a child. Not yet, anyway. A few more years would have been nice. Time enough to find a suitable job, impress everyone at the next high school reunion, shove his success in their faces and say “See? I can be as big as you.”

So why did he have to know Stacy? Years of friendship consummated in flimsy dorm room beds. Elementary school through middle school through high school, in the same Catholic enclave, a pale girl at the front of the class who had to be told year after year to put away her books and her journals because she had to focus on the lesson at hand so she could pass the test so she could develop the skills she needed to do well in college so she could get a decent-paying job so she could provide for her family when she had one of her own so she should do as the teacher says and put her books away. Inquisitive, impertinent, an incorrigible delight.

Let’s leave Stacy alone while she plays with the flowers. I’m organizing them. Today it’s smallest to largest. Tomorrow it’s ugliest to prettiest. And then it’s friendliest to meanest, she told him. Sounds boring. Finding patterns is not boring. Whatever, Stacy.

Playing in backyards and writing songs together and strolling the parks at night, talking about the big questions and the little questions of everyday life. The day she told him she was going to the same college he was going to they went to one of their favorite spots and drank sparkling grape juice and talked until three in the morning.

Throughout high school, there was Lauren, and Elizabeth; Rose, Scarlet, Lily, all of them precious to him, yes, precious, but lichen-like, unpleasant, after a few days, weeks, or months—they all sort of blended together, after a point. But never Stacy. She was just a friend. His closest.

Until college. Until, in the locker rooms, after practices, the steam billowing about his teammates’ calves, thighs, biceps; the thrill, the deep thrill, a true thrill of colliding with their bodies as they scrambled for the ball; the looks they gave him as they passed him in hallways, on campus, like they knew. After he’d been silent for too long in the lounge, minding his feelings and afraid to open his mouth, they’d ask him “You good, Joseph?” and he’d say, “Yes, I’m fine.” Camaraderie, teamwork, juicing each other up—he felt like a traitor.

Hey, Stacy, gotta question for you…

When he would wake up beside her, he would tell himself that he had never loved someone as he had loved her. When she went to go tend to Samuel, he told himself he loved her, for her strength of character when she defied their parents’ unspoken wishes to “fix the problem” and just go back to living their lives. It had begun in Mr. Jacobson’s freshman English class, when she’d passed him a stapler, he’d felt something then, he told himself. He’d started loving her then.

But he knew he shouldn’t have. And, looking at Samuel, he considers that perhaps he’s tried too hard to prove that love was there.

Little Samuel curls his fingers and waves a fist at the ceiling. I exist, he seems to be saying, And I will keep on existing! Joseph’s stomach drops out; he shuffles his left foot, wearing a scuffed black dress shoe, across the bright floor tiles; this homily is interminable, when are they going home?

As Stacy listens to Fr. Daniel speak about Jesus’ injunction to respect the sanctity of the church—“He cast out the merchants for turning a space meant for reflection and communion with God into a place governed by the restlessness of the world.”—as she sits there, Samuel squirming in her arms, Joseph shuffling his feet, she becomes profoundly angry with Fr. Daniel. Not in the least because he was the one who advised her to follow Joseph to college. “Remember how the two of you made confirmation classes so lively?” he says. “Like frick and frack, you were. I think it would be a mistake to go away from him.” “I don’t know,” she says. “Oh, come now,” Fr. Daniel says. “You know you’ll miss him.”

It’s more like, well… What does he know of love and marriage? Of child-rearing? Of being afraid you would be told to pack your suitcase, take your clothes one by one out of the dresser you’ve used since you were five, still decorated in stray spots of paint you and your father dribbled on it years ago while you painted in the driveway; of needing to make room for your stuffed animals, unused and dust-covered in their reliquaries; and for the blanket your grandmother knitted for you, a mass of fraying threads; of dragging that swollen suitcase down each step—bump-bump-bump—because you are not strong enough to carry all that weight on your own; of passing the family pictures, where you are smiling next to your brothers and sisters, who are now staring at you from the living room as you drag the suitcase down the last step—bump-bump; your parents will not stare at you. They are more preoccupied with the woods behind your home, where you would pretend to be Robin Hood; they will not see you open the front door, though they will hear you, and they will see you in their mind’s eye, coming into the house with dirt on your knees to drop a dying dandelion in the vase on the kitchen table; and they will not walk to the windows and see you dragging your suitcase down the uneven sidewalk and around the bend, to the roadside bus stop, where you will wait for half an hour in the cold for a bus to take you to the train station, where you will take a train to a friend’s house near your college, from which you must withdraw, because your parents are no longer helping you with tuition; they will instead, after they have heard the front door close, march over to the front windows and pull the heavy curtains shut, and turn around and tell your siblings to get ready for a nice family dinner; and before they remove you from the family pictures the next afternoon, your younger sister will wake before the sun has risen, grab a small photo of you, and hide it in her diary; she will still have it ten years later, when she spends her Christmas break searching for you, for you, the one who left because her parents were cold and cruel, because only those who were pure deserved to be loved by God and his people.

He knows nothing of that fear.

And he knows nothing of the conversation, conducted over many months, with terse words and unsaid words and nervous glances, about, the question concerning… Samuel squeals when the choir begins to sing “For the love poured down upon us,” and he gazes at the chandeliers hanging above… And the feeling, which pained her the most when she was changing Samuel’s diaper and thinking of the piles of homework waiting for her when she returned next fall, the feeling that maybe, maybe she should have, without Joseph’s knowledge or consent, maybe she should have, maybe it would have been—but no. Samuel has grabbed the pendant on her necklace again, and bubbles have begun forming on the corners of his smiling mouth. No. She rocks him, steadily as they approach the baptismal font, and musically mutters what the choir’s singing behind her: “For this child, your holy treasure, thanks be to you.” No.

On the day of her first communion, Fr. Daniel remembered that Stacy was a happy girl, skipping down the aisle, white dress fluttering at her knees, white veil waving behind her back. A garland of plastic flowers bounces atop her elegantly braided hair. Wonderful—she is excited because today is the day she receives God’s grace. Miss Vicky waits beside the designated pew, beaming, officious, and friendly. And he is presiding upon his wooden throne, looking at all the children filing into their seats. Joseph, his dark hair tousled, his little suit jacket wrinkled, walks somberly to his place in the pew—something was always on that boy’s mind.

Not that different from now, frankly, Fr. Daniel thinks as he approaches the group gathered around the baptismal font. On what should be a happy day, Joseph radiates gloom. Fr. Daniel knew why—in the confession booth, Joseph had told him “Father, I think I like other boys,” and behind the screen, Fr. Daniel had smirked—Of course! He’d seen the peculiar way Joseph shied away from the other boys—and then told Joseph that homosexuality was not a sin, no matter who told him otherwise, God only cared if you used another person for your own selfish ends, He did not care if you liked other boys. And he remembered that Joseph protests, saying that his parents have said for years that it is wrong for a man to have a crush on a man. The air becomes quiet and heavy. Fr. Daniel imagines that Joseph’s face is pale, and he thinks he hears the sound of muffled crying. “It’ll be okay, Joseph,” he says. “God has a plan for you.” Whether or not this is true eludes Fr. Daniel, but it feels like the right thing to say to a frightened child.

The baptismal font waits before them. Marble, solid marble, with a green felt bottom and a gold basin. His congregants dip their fingers into its Holy Water at the start of each mass and cross themselves. Placid water instead of blood-soaked wood. It is almost funny, in a grisly sort of way.

As Fr. Daniel takes Samuel out of Stacy’s arms, as he watches Samuel’s joyful smile turn into a studious frown, he feels remorse for urging Stacy to follow Joseph to college, for thinking she could be a support for him. She looks so sick now. Worn down. He has not done right by her. Hadn’t she wanted to be a poet? Or a professor of some kind? And as Samuel reaches for his wire frame glasses, and he hears himself say “He’s ready to become one of those merchants, now isn’t he?” he wonders what will happen to this child, the kind of life he will have, with a frustrated father and an overwrought mother, in a household ripe for sin.

“Christ within you!” proclaims the choir. “Amen.”

The dullness lifts and daylight streams through Mary’s blue robe. The family around the font falls still. The whole church falls still. Samuel is enraptured by the gold designs on Fr. Daniel’s robe. Come, my child, let us begin.

You are my sunshine, my only sunshine. The blue light streaming through Mary’s robe makes him smile because it is like the color of his mother’s eyes. Fr. Daniel’s hands are warm, and his voice is soft. The world is filled with so much color and light. You’ll never know dear, how much I love you.

Stacy wants Fr. Daniel to give him back to her, back to his mother, the one who allowed him to come into this world, and she wants God to turn back the clock so that Samuel died during birth, or so that she’d decided to “fix it,” or so that she’d had a miscarriage, or so that she’d never shared her poetry with Joseph and they’d never gone back to his room. O, unreachable blue! / Men want land to call their own, / while women hope to spread their wings and find themselves in you.

The many nights of interrupted sleep and worrying that his screams mean something awful and the pain every time she breastfeeds Samuel—this was supposed to come naturally, wasn’t it?—and Joseph’s inexplicable surliness—though he is so gentle with Samuel—and the judgment and sadness in her parents’ eyes and her professors’ eyes and even Fr. Daniel’s eyes… Is it any wonder she looks ill?  She didn’t bother to put too much makeup on because she was worried it would highlight how exhausted she’s become, and she didn’t want any more attention to be drawn to that than was necessary. She hadn’t really wanted to come out, because she knew people would see her and wonder what was wrong and titter and mutter to themselves “See? That’s why you always want to wait until marriage,” and she’d just have to respond to them by saying “Weren’t you young once?”

All those new people at college, all that fear, and Joseph’s warm, familiar eyes… Always gentle and a joy to be around and yes that was partially because she’d long suspected that he preferred men, no matter how insistently he told her otherwise. But the Lord had evidently decided that Joseph would be the man for her and in a sense she was glad, because he was something familiar and safe, but in another sense she was not glad at all, because ever since that night, even before she told Joseph she was pregnant, things changed between them, they weren’t “just” friends anymore, she saw the cold and distant side of Joseph his girlfriends had complained about in high school, and she began to feel that she was troublesome to him, but he denied it. “No, Stacy, you’re my friend, we’re friends.”

And, worse, she could sense a part of him wanted things to be as they had always been, and a part of him knew that he was pulling away from her, and that a part of him didn’t want to accept this mess they’d gotten themselves into, but he forced himself to accept it anyway because what kind of man would he be if he didn’t?

And now Samuel, calling for her constantly, constantly, constantly constantly constantly but at least his feelings for her are pure and uncomplicated and this is why she wants Fr. Daniel to give him back to her, while Joseph stands and shuffles his feet beside her, while Jesus watches from the cross, while God judges up above—because he makes her happy, because she trusts him, Samuel, trusts him alone.

Joseph feels Stacy’s nervous energy, and thinks he should put an arm around her, but he figures she probably won’t like that, so he doesn’t.

He perhaps should have spent more time decorating the nursery. She rushed to get Samuel out of it every morning; he was sure it was partially responsible for her daily dour mood. He himself didn’t mind it too terribly much. Yes, the walls were a hideous grey, but the curtains were a delectable yellow and the stuffed animals massed in the corner were a lovely splash of color. She wanted it to be blue, blue walls, blue carpet, blue ceiling, blue curtains, he told her to wait, to wait, they had plenty of time, she needed to stop bugging him, both of them had to prepare for finals, anyway, though he should have known she would be on his case about something like that.

He’d held her hand as she screamed, before he’d rocked Samuel as he screamed, before his parents, her parents, screamed at him with their eyes. How was anyone supposed to be prepared for this? He still preferred to leave his clothes unwashed and sprawled on the floor for a week instead of gathering them in a hamper and sequestering them to one side of the room. He still ate microwave meals. He could not do this. In ten years, once he’s become regional manager of the company he is currently interning at, he could see himself collapsing into the couch and flicking on the TV as he waits for the burning in his eyes to dissipate; he would snap at Stacy to buck up and keep her problems to herself, doesn’t she know how hard his life was, doesn’t she have bills to pay, while Samuel makes a mess downstairs with one of his friends. He would have a bloated mid-section and a perpetual five o’clock shadow. He can walk away from it now, the sanctuary doors are so close, Samuel is little more than a blob, he will not remember if he left. Could he withstand the eyes following him out of the church? The road, it calls to him, the pavement stretching into sweet oblivion, where, maybe, he can finally allow himself to relax with a man…

Fr. Daniel is cupping his palms. Now or never.

Samuel, in the crib, on the sea of sleep, not one disturbance, no men overboard, the winds stilled… A mighty yawn, and his feet twitch, a finger crooks…

Against his better judgment, Joseph does not flee from the church. He watches, dazzled, humbled, mortified, as the water falls onto his son’s precious head.

Beads of water, falling, seizing the light from the chandeliers, the windows, the baptismal flame. Sparkling, pretty, his mother’s eyes are wet. He reaches out, they tickle as they slide down his cheeks, he laughs, gurgle, gurgle, he laughs, more, joy, sunshine, my only sunshine.

Stacy tries to maintain a rigid, unyielding face, as Samuel stirs in his dress and Fr. Daniel says: “May you know the Grace of God and spread His goodness throughout the world.” Only a statue of the dying Jesus has a face as expressionless as hers. “My God, My God, why have you abandoned me?” he cried as the sweat dried on his gashed forehead and his eyes rolled backward beneath crusts of matted blood. “Into your hands, I commend my spirit.”

The curtains tear above the shattering Earth.

Hanging in the nursery are limp blue rags that would be unworthy of Mary Magdalene’s bed. Joseph grabbed them at a friend’s yard sale a few weeks prior. She swears they smell of mildew and he swears she needs to relax. When Samuel coughs, she panics.

Fr. Daniel has said many words, blessed many people, shaken many hands. New parishioners join him every year, old ones leave. Regulars inexplicably stop coming, new regulars take their places. Newlyweds, the Christmas and Easter Christians, friends who have moved away and have long since stopped dropping by to say hello, parishioners he’s buried in the cemetery, young people who came every now and then before leaving, he supposes, to chase new opportunities in greener pastures. And the little babies. All the little Samuels, squealing in delight as the water trickles down their faces, suggesting, merely suggesting, that there might be more to the Eucharist than starch.

As he raises Samuel above his head, he hopes this is true.

You make me happy when skies are grey, he is dripping above the font, babbling, lips glistening with drool as the strongest sunlight passes, at last, through the stained glass windows, as fragments of colors slide across his dress, green beside blue beside red, hands grasping, legs kicking, as the man with the soft warm hands says “Welcome, little Samuel, to the Church!” Please don’t take my sunshine away.

 

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