The Broken Pieces of God
David B. Seaburn
The first week off work was fine. But after ten days it was hard to get out of bed in the morning. The mattress was softer than I remembered. The comforter was warmer. The sheets felt like they were lined with adhesive. Gayle got up before me every day, which was not typical.
My normal routine was to get up at 5:30AM to be at work by 7AM even though I didn’t need to be there until 8.30. Best way to stay on top of things. An outage somewhere. A storm coming. Pole down from a drunk driver. Always something, big or small. Nothing these days, though.
I sat on the edge of the bed for several minutes watching the curtains blow in the wind. Spring is almost here, but our windows are open no matter the season. Cold air is good air. I got up, made the bed, took a shower and woke up. It was quiet in the house. I wondered how Gayle slept.
I looked in the mirror at my morning shadow and decided I didn’t need to shave. Even though by dinner I’d look like a faded boxer, pug nosed, square white teeth, puffy eyes. I’d grow a beard except Gayle thinks it would make me look pudgier. Not pudgy, pudgier. I guess I do have extra face on every side. I got dressed, a pair of fire hose work pants, a black T and a flannel shirt.
I forgot Gayle had early appointments. I didn’t like people in the house when I was still waking up, but like she said, “Tax season is tax season; we need every penny.” She is a hard worker.
And a good wife. Coffee was brewed. I stood in the kitchen admiring March. There was some snow in the back corner of the yard and the garden was mud. No buds on the trees, but there were daffodils and tulips showing. A wedge of geese, a woodpecker, some wrens at the feeder. The sky was blue. May get ten inches of snow tomorrow. That’s March. We’re transitioning. Maybe change will bring better things.
The door to Gayle’s office was closed. I heard murmurs so I knocked and stuck my head in. John Gordon sat across the table from Gayle.
“Hey, Mark, how’s it going?” John owned three local gas stations.
“I’ll know in about an hour.” He smiled broadly. “I don’t know what I’d do without Gayle here. And I’m not alone.” He winked.
“C’mon.” Gayle was hunched over her computer, a legal tablet beside her, tax forms stacked all around.
“Any final news on Universal and Scope?”
“What a mess.”
“How’s the gas business?”
“Prices are holding. Can never tell.”
Gale looked up from her work and smiled.
“Good morning, honey. How’s it going?”
Her back now to John, her smile turned into a grimace. “Fine.”
“Okay. Can I get you anything? Tea?”
She opened her mouth and stuck out her tongue. “No thanks.”
“Nothing really.” Our eyes locked for a brief moment.
“Okay. I’m going for a walk. I’ve got my phone if you need anything. From the store or whatever.”
John shifted in his seat, ready to get back to his refunds.
“Take it easy, John. Good to see you.”
John waved and I pulled the door closed.
I stood on the front porch for a few minutes. The sky was azure blue with soft white clouds moving west to eat. I breathed deep as a bellows. The sun came out from behind a cloud. I shielded my eyes and unzipped my jacket.
At the end of the block, Caroline Kerrigan was digging near her front porch. She wore baggy sweats and a hoody. And gardening knee pads. She had a kerchief over her graying hair.
“How’s it going Caroline?”
She got up on her hands and knees and then sat back on her heels. “You’re still alive, I see. I don’t think I’ve seen you since December.”
“Decided to come out.”
She got up and walked to her front fence.
“We’re like groundhogs, aren’t we?”
“How was your winter?”
“The kids came home for the holidays. Ellen has a little one, you know. And he’s a delight. Then they went away and Joe and I have been waiting for spring ever since.”
“And you? How are you doing? How’s Caroline?”
“Nothing stops that girl.”
“That’s for sure.”
Caroline took a step closer. “I’m glad to hear it.”
Caroline’s face had a pliable quality. Her smile could spread ear to ear, eyebrows up to her hairline. Or it could get small and closed down, eyes narrow and lips curled at the corners, held there by her cheeks. That was the face she used as she spoke now; a face that was trying to say more than it could say with words.
“It can be hard.”
“And what are you working on?”
“Well, I put bulbs in last year and I’m taking a peek. Some are coming up.”
She pointed at something I couldn’t see. “Yes, looks good.”
“I’ve got crocuses, of course. Daffodils like everyone else. Some lily of the valley, hyacinth, nothing out of the ordinary.”
“It always looks pretty.” I had reached the end of my conversational repertoire with Caroline. “Well, better get going. Tell Joe I said hi.”
When I was growing up, the Park Pharmacy was on the corner across from the town square. But a few years ago, it was replaced by a giant Rite Aid. We went from a row boat to an ocean liner. Several houses and Old Doc Helling’s office disappeared in the process. Do we need a drug store that sells groceries? One good thing is that Samuel Jefferson survived the change and stayed on as the pharmacist. Sam and I went to high school together. He was a passable basketball player. I wasn’t. He went away to school. I didn’t. Sam’s wife died in an automobile accident years ago. He remarried last year. I stood up for him. His wife, Cari, is twenty years younger than Sam. I’m sure he’s dyed his hair, although he gets upset when I say it. He’s dying to tell me about his sexual regimen. I’m not dying to hear about it.
When you open the door at Rite Aid a tone sounds and someone says “Hi, how are you? Can I help you?” Today, Lillie was behind the counter, though. She always says, “Oh no, is that Mark Mason; quick, tie everything down.”
“How’s it going, Lillie?”
“That son of mine is going to be the death of me. That’s how it’s going. Came home drunk the other night. I don’t know what to do with him. And Michael’s no help. You guys are no help. He throws up his hands or yells. Like I said, no help.”
I used to offer suggestions or support, but Lillie didn’t like the interruption, so now I listen and nod.
“Is the boss in?”
“Where else would he be?”
I passed row after row of pain killers, sleep aids, nausea medicine and antacids. I didn’t remember any of this when I was growing up. I guess my father had indigestion from time to time. Alka-Seltzer was the cure. He’d never know what to do if he saw all this.
I picked up five boxes of condoms on the way to the pharmacy and stuck them under my jacket. I dinged the bell on the counter several times.
“I figured it was you.” Sam’s white lab coat was pristine. He had four pens in the pocket protector.
“Good morning, sir.”
Sam took off his glasses, pulled a wipe from a nearby box and rubbed each lens with care. He looked through the lenses and was dissatisfied so he huffed on them and wiped them with the hem of his lab coat.
“What can I do for you, sir?” he asked. “By the looks of you, I’m guessing you’ve got something bad going on. Am I right?”
“If you were right, it would be the first time in your life. We would have to hold a parade.”
“That would be fine with me.”
Sam pointed at my jacket. “What’s going on there? What do you have this time?”
I unzipped my jacket and let the condoms scatter across the counter.
“An aspirational purchase.” Sam stacked the boxes and looked at me above his glasses lenses. “You are becoming a degenerate old fool.”
“New horizons. How is that lovely wife of yours doing, Sam?”
“Maddy is doing quite well, thank you. She’s visiting her sister in North Carolina. So it’s meatball sub week for me.”
“Life keeps getting better.”
Another customer approached the check-out so I stepped aside. Sam picked through the alphabetized bins looking for the right prescription.
“There you go, Mrs. Hollings. Do you have any questions?”
Mrs. Hollings shifted her cane from one hand to the other. She was breathing hard and found it difficult to speak. “No.”
“Okay. Just click there. That’s it. Now swipe. The other way. No, the other other way. Okay. Check the upper box. Good. Now all you have to do is sign and then you’re free to go.”
“Didn’t used to do all this. I don’t like it.”
“No one does.” Sam folded the top of the bag and handed it to Mrs. Hollings. “There you go.”
Mrs. Hollings inched away from the counter, her back arched.
“That’s going to be us, Mark.”
“You sooner than me, but still.” Sam picked up the stack of condoms and put them under the counter.
Sam was on the phone answering a question about statins. I was always impressed with how much he knew about medicine. I think he should have been a doctor, but he told me that it wasn’t the life for him. Being on call all the time. Never turning off the light and going home. I think he wanted to be a doctor but circumstances prevented it.
“So, have you heard anything yet?”
“Anything. Have you heard anything about anything?”
He punctuated each word with a forward nod of his head, as if her were sending a message in Morse code.
“Oh. Nothing really. Nothing definitive.”
“Going to call them?”
“They’ll call us, I’m sure.”
Sam shook his head and looked at the register.
“Don’t worry, I’m sure they’re busy, that’s all.”
“Don’t wait too long.”
“I think you’ve got something for me back there.” I nodded at the bins behind him. Sam sighed extra loud and got the bag.
“This should help some with the pain.”
“That’s what we want.”
“Yep. Pain is, well, pain.”
Sam’s face got old right before my eyes, like he’d remembered everything in his life all at once and it wore him out.
“Look, Sam, thank you for everything you’ve done---”
“It’s nothing, really. Now go on before Gayley thinks you’ve lost your way.”
I took the bag from the counter. “I thank you, old friend. And you know Gayle thanks you.”
Sam and Gayle had dated all through high school. They were lab partners in ninth grade biology. She was the head of the Debate Club. He was president of Key Club. Small honors but important in those days. They went to every dance and every sporting event. If one was seen alone, someone would always ask where the other one was. Sam and I hung out on weekends and some week nights, although Gayle always came first. She and I were friends by association since Sam I were so close.
Sam and Gayle double-dated to the senior prom with me and Maggie Dunaway. Sam drove his uncle’s white Cadillac. The school had a tradition of switching partners for one dance, so I danced with Gayle. First time I’d been that close to her. I always knew she was pretty, but being face to face overwhelmed me. I couldn’t look at her eyes. She talked so comfortably, like we had danced together a million times. I listened and tried to be funny. She laughed and I relaxed a little. When the dance was over, we all clapped. I said, “Thank you,” and she smiled, pressed my arm with her left hand, and looked at me as if to say, “You don’t have to thank me. It was my pleasure.” At least, that’s what I imagined.
Sam left for the university in early August. Gayle enrolled in community college near home and I got a job with the cable company. Sam asked me to check in on his girl, which I did. I’d call her on the phone or stop by if I saw her in the yard. Once we got together for lunch. Then we started seeing each other more often.
When Sam came home at Christmas, we told him. He was angry at first, but soon accepted it. Gayle was mine. I think he already knew something was going on as the letters from Gayle dwindled. I didn’t see him again during break, but by spring we were friends again. He had met someone at college. It all worked out. From time to time, though, he would still call Gayle “Gayley.” No one else ever did. It was his high school pet name for her. When he did this, I always wondered.
I was almost to the door before Sam called: “I’m not old. You’re old.” I waved back at him without turning.
I stood at the corner of Park and Main. Grand elms and oaks covered the town square, their limbs still bare, a little green at their tips. These trees, some over two-hundred years old, were a source of pride for the town. Some had metal rods between their heavier, longer branches and a few looked like they were rotting, but their resilience made us all feel good, rooted.
The square had sidewalks from one corner to the other and all around the perimeter. There were swings and slides and sandboxes in the southeast corner. A flower garden. A fountain that soon would be operational sat in the northwest corner. In the center was a white gazebo with a vaulted roof topped with an American flag that was so big you could hear it flapping from almost anywhere in the park. There were benches everywhere and a handful of picnic tables. These were anchored in cement so no one could steal them, an innovation in recent years. Great mounds of blackened ice were piled throughout the park, the only place the DPW could think to put snow during the winter. While most of the grass was still brown, there were patches of green here and there.
People came and went, criss-crossing the square. A few sat on benches despite the March chill.
“Hey, Clevon.” Clevon wore his work jacket, gloves and work boots. He looked like he was ready, but didn’t have any place to go.
“Hey, Mark. What’s happening?” He slid to one side and patted the seat. I sat beside him. We shook hands.
“How about this?” I looked up at the trees and scanned the landscape. “Gives you a good feeling when you can sit on the square again.”
“Yes, it does. Two months ago, I didn’t know if this day would ever come.”
“That’s for sure.”
We were quiet for a few minutes. Clevon took off his gloves and put them on the bench. His hands were chunky and raw, work hands.
“So,” he said.
“Yeah, I know.”
“What do you know?”
“No more than you know.”
“Damn.” He shook his head hard. “It just isn’t fair, plain and simple.”
“They’re treating us like we don’t account for nothing.”
“What’s going to happen to us?”
“Well, no one’s closed the doors. Nothing like that. I’ve seen owners come and go, names change, but the work still has to be done by somebody. And that means they need people like you and me.”
Clevon had worked at Universal Cable for ten years, which made him a newcomer. I’d been with the company when they were Cable Quest, then Unlimited Cable and, twelve years ago, Universal Cable. Every time there were changes, some jobs were lost, then people were hired back and, in the end, we went on.
“I still don’t like it.” Clevon’s hands were fidgety and he looked back and forth like he was waiting for a train. “How many weeks are you off?”
His head stopped moving.
“Eight? I’m five. Driving me a little crazy. I don’t want to sit. I want to work.”
“Have any hobbies?”
“You’re looking at it.”
“Well, I’m sure---”
Clevon was punctuating with his head now.
“Did you hear about overtime?”
I had heard rumors but I’m not one to entertain rumors because most of the time they’re rumors.
“I’ve heard lots of stuff. Nothing certain.”
“Well, this is certain. Ralph was at the meeting this morning and the Big Boss told everyone that unlimited overtime would be a thing of the past. Do you believe that?”
My face screwed up confused. “He said what?”
“What I said---no unlimited overtime. Period. End of sentence.”
Now my hands started to fidget. I made twenty-thousand last year alone on overtime. The family room---overtime bought that. The boat---overtime again. College for Jack and Sandy---if it weren’t for overtime, they’d be working at Walmart.
“Are you sure about this? I mean, did Ralph say they were thinking about this or they threatened to do it or were considering---”
“None of that. Done deal.” Clevon was breathing hard. He unzipped his jacket. I rubbed my hands on my pant legs and leaned forward on my elbows. “Look, Mark, I know you been a company man for a long time; and the company’s done good by you. You’re a supervisor and all. But times have changed. Then was then. Now is now.”
Clevon opened his mouth and closed it again. He patted my back and stood. We shook hands. I watched him until he reached Main. He crossed the street and got into his grey Saturn.
I didn’t think I needed to tell Gayle any of this, at least not now. When you’ve been married as long as we have you understand when to say things and when to wait. Everyone says ‘be honest’ ‘tell the truth’ ‘that’s what makes a good marriage’ and I’m all for that, but the real issue in being honest is timing. It’s not just what you have to say, it’s how well the other person can hear what you have to say. It takes time to figure that out. When I lost my first job, Gayle was pregnant with our son. It was a hard pregnancy. She was sick all the time. I got up every day and ‘went to work’ even though I didn’t have a job, just to keep things normal. It was about three months before I got a new job. That’s when I told her I lost the other one. Sometimes you have to hold onto things.
The park was getting busy. A half dozen squirrels on the run, moms and a few dads pushing strollers, kids on the swings. Cardinals barked and somewhere a woodpecker was pounding. When winter comes I love the silence. But I love the sounds of spring more.
The chimes at the First Presbyterian Church marked the hour. A few tiles were missing from its slender spire. A plain cross was perched on top. I stopped for a moment to watch city workers cleaning the fountain and then walked over to the church. First Pres was a wood frame affair over a hundred years old. There was a modest double door at its entrance. There were two stained glass windows on either side of the front door and three larger ones on both sides of the building. Above the entrance was a copy of the National Cathedral’s rose window depicting creation. The sanctuary was lined with oak pews. Wood beams anchored the vaulted ceiling. There was a small lectern and a larger, raised one on the altar where the preacher preached. The choir loft was behind the altar and above the loft was a gold cross. At least that’s how I remember it from when Gayle and I got married.
There was a meditation garden in the back. It was sequestered behind dense holly bushes. In the middle of the garden was a nine-foot statue with a plaque---Jesus the Consoler. In the ‘50s, when the church was going great guns, a rich congregant died and left money for the church, but stipulated that it had to be used for an “external adornment.” They say the marble came from Greece and the sculpting was done in Italy. It arrived on a massive flatbed. Schools closed early so children could watch the forty-foot crane hoist the gleaming white Jesus into place.
Some said that area Baptists, Methodists, Lutherans and Catholics smiled through thinly veiled covetousness when Rev. Cecile Upchurch found an imperfection---a chip the size of a man’s thumb near Jesus’s collarbone.
Stunned and embarrassed, church leaders wanted to sue. Old-timers remember that Rev. Upchurch saved the day. Kind of. He said the “notch,” as it became known, was a sign of Jesus’s identification with human imperfection and a reminder that Christ alone was perfect. Most members accepted this, although a few left for the Episcopal Church, where money matters were handled more deftly.
Others thought Jesus’s nose was too large; that it wasn’t Anglo-Saxon enough; that it looked too Jewish. Upchurch explained that Jesus was middle-eastern. And a Jew. Many congregants were aghast at this explanation. Behind closed doors, some suggested that it might be time for Rev. Upchurch to consider a new calling. Others left the Church for the End Times Chapel out on Town Line Rd.
Finding no one in the garden, I sat on the bench. I looked up at Jesus’s face which was tilted down. He had longish hair and a dense beard. There was a faint smile on his face. His arms were outstretched, palms up, fingers open and bent slightly. His robe billowed and when the sun hit it just so it seemed translucent. His feet were bare. The years and the weather had replaced his gleaming white sheen with elephant grey grit.
I came to the garden the first time when we started getting bad news. I was out for a walk and when I passed the church, I heard the bushes rustling in the wind. I looked up and there was Jesus’s face peering out from above the holly. At first, I thought it was funny. Notre Dame has Touchdown Jesus and we have Jesus the Voyeur. I kept walking, but on the way back, I went through the opening in the bushes and sat on the stone bench. I went back often after that.
When I first told Gayle about this, she stopped folding the laundry and looked at me. Her expression said, ‘I don’t know you at all’. Not that she was anti-religion. It was more that we had never been church people. Neither of our families were regular either. They went on holidays, but even then, it didn’t matter which church they went to, just so it wasn’t too far away. I felt uncomfortable under her gaze and tried to explain myself. “I, it’s, I don’t know what it is…it’s just…” Then I shrugged.
Gayle’s expression didn’t change. “Do you pray or something?”
“I don’t know.”
I kept going. Touching the statue’s feet or the robe made me feel different. Don’t ask me to explain what I felt, because I didn’t really feel a thing, but I mean that in a good way. As if I was far away and close by all at the same time.
Other times, it was worrisome to be sitting there on a stone bench staring at a giant slab of marble made to look like Jesus; why am I doing this?
Paul Goff had been the minister for fifteen years. He was tall, slender, a little bent over, perhaps from, the burdens of his calling; sinewy; thick head of white hair, piercing blue eyes, a craggy look overall. In his seventies somewhere. He wore black trousers, black shoes, and a long-sleeved white shirt buttoned at the neck.
“Mind if I join you?”
Paul often arrived soon after I sat down.
“We need a coffee machine out here.” His eyes closed and his cheeks swelled when he smiled.
“You’re the boss, aren’t you?”
He eyed the statue. “Actually, he’s the boss and from what I’ve read, he prefers wine to coffee.”
We always began with patter, followed by silence until one or the other of us, most often Paul, felt restless.
“You know, I’ve been studying that face for as long as I’ve been here. I think I’ve figured it out.”
He liked to say things that invited a question. “What’s that?”
“Who he looks like. I’ve only seen the painting in person once, but I think his smile is Mona Lisa’s smile.”
I shook my head.
“You know some researchers did a study of Mona Lisa’s smile. They had people rate whether she was happy or sad or what. And ninety-seven percent said she was happy.” When Paul was thinking hard, he always rubbed his stubbled chin. “I don’t know if it’s that clear cut. Maybe all those people just wanted her to look happy.” It was fine if I didn’t have anything to say. “The smile, if you want to call it that, seems more ambiguous, more mysterious to me. But it draws you in, that’s for sure. Maybe that’s the point.”
There was eagerness on his face as he turned to me.
“I just think it’s a nice statue.”
Most of the time Paul’s ‘points’ eluded me, but I liked him.
The holly rustled and white clouds passed in the blue. I looked at Jesus and his smile.
“So. How are you doing, Mark?”
“I’m sure you are.” He folded his hands in his lap and looked sideways at me.
“You have a lot going on.”
“Must be hard at times. Carrying so much.”
“You’ve been coming here pretty often of late.” He pointed to his office window on the second floor. “I have an even better view than Jesus here.”
“That you do.”
Paul shifted and crossed his legs. “You know, Mark, this statue is called Jesus the Consoler for a reason. Everyone needs comfort at one time or another.”
“I’m pretty comfortable, Paul.” The expression on his face was steady, unmoved by what I said.
“Sometimes you need to lift your burdens up. Turn them over to a higher power.”
This was the first time Paul had ever gone religious on me. Our conversations were usually weather-sports-local-news-then-a-random-story-from-Paul. But I understood that his being there almost every time I came wasn’t a coincidence. It was always clear that he wanted me to enter his fold, but unlike many preachers, he didn’t pressure you. He was more like water dripping on rock. I decided not to answer.
“Well, I should go,” said Paul. “Do you mind if I pray?”
He took my hands in his and bowed his head. His forehead was furrowed and his eyes fluttered, but he didn’t say a word just “Amen” at the end as he squeezed my hands.
“Think about what I said.”
“Hug your wife,” said Paul. “And yourself.”
I sat for a few minutes longer then got up to leave. I looked at the stone face of Jesus towering over me; at the smile. I started to walk away and then turned back. Something seemed different. I stood on my tiptoes to get a closer look. Then I looked away, blinked hard, and looked back at the face again. I did this several times. It was the mouth. The corners were different. I stood back a few feet and squinted. If a bunch of researchers asked a thousand people about this smile, I’m sure that ninety-seven percent would see sadness. I closed my eyes to erase what I saw. When I opened them again, I saw fear.