I remember sneaking into the old Saunders house with my older sister. The trees twisted into positions which during the night cast shadows, which still haunt me in my dreams. It was silly, but great fun. We were discoverers of occult. Patrons of good, as Father Hope called us. I miss him. Father Geary is stern and never lets anything go. He forced Jane to grow up too fast. Twenty years old and already mother of two and married to Hank. Hank ‘wooden-face’ Edison.
I still visit the Saunders house. I won’t get in trouble for going into the yard any more, but I still sneak, pretend that the shadows are moving in the moonlight. When Will and Joey are older we can play there. Hopefully I won’t be too old.
My father yelled from the kitchen.
“Mary! Get down here! A big city man bought the old Saunders house. Look. He spent more than my granddad did when he bought us this estate. Idiot. Those city folks…”
“Although, I am worried he’s not going to be welcome here.” My mother put her hands on her knees. “Or what if he’s not a good Christian? Oh I do hope he is. I will pray for him. Mary, you pray too. I heard his father died. Poor soul.”
“How did he die?”
“He smoked himself to death.” Mother took the cigarette from my father’s hands. “It could be you! Do you want to leave poor sweet, little Mary without a father?”
“I won’t die from smoking. It’s the city. Where smoke rises from the ground. They get twice the dosage. Mary, you should follow your mother over to the old Saunders house. You’re always sneaking in there.”
“Yes. That would be mighty fine, Mary. Maybe you can help him with that awful garden. It has grown beyond control.”
Mother packed a loaf of bread, put her hat on and tied a neat ribbon in my hair. On our way over there we met Father Geary.
“Evening, Mrs. Foster and young Mary.” He bowed. “I wanted to welcome the new owner of Saunders house…”
“Oh? Is he a good man?”
“No. He is a young man and that boy is trouble. I told him we have put together a little group to help with painting the house, fixing the fence and the yard.”
“What did he say?”
“He told me to…” The Father held his hand over his mouth. “I’m sorry. I can’t. Not in front of Mary. He told me to go to a damned place.”
“Oh no! Father Geary. What a travesty! Our peaceful community.”
“It’s the city folks. I tell you one thing. It’s not right. It’s unnatural. A young boy, alone in such a big house after his father died. You know, just before I left him, I offered him my bible. He wouldn’t take it.”
“No! You don’t think..?”
“I do, Mrs. Foster. We’ll just have to wait until Sunday. But I will not be surprised if young Mr. Gibson ‘forgets’ to come.” Father Geary filled his lungs through the nose. “I think I will give a sermon on tradition and communion.”
We said goodbye and stood still for a while.
“Mary, perhaps it’s best if you return home.”
“No. I think it’s best. He is a young boy from the city. What if he…” My mother leaned closer. “lusts after you? Oh dear. Just run along home now.”
I ran home and up to my room. If I leaned just right I could see the top of the heads of my mother and the boy. My mother’s hat bobbed up and down as she spoke to the chestnut haired boy. She came home. I ran down the stairs to listen. She told my father. He banged his fist in the table. “I knew it! Those city folks. He’s probably a thief. We need to lock everything up.” He closed the cabinet with the good china, looked around and stopped at me. “I should lock you up and throw away the key.”
I smiled. “Philip please-”
“Philip!?” He slapped me. “I’m your father! On rare formal occasions am I Mr. Foster, but in the privacy of my own home… Can’t I for the love of god be the father of my youngest daughter!? Don’t rebel on me! Not now! A city boy lives three blocks down. You know what happens in the city? Rape. Do you want to be raped? Who will touch you then? A raped girl.” He grabbed my arm so hard. And he shook me. “No one! You will be left by the curb like a slut. You hear me!? The Benson boys will not even look at you. You will go from town to town, begging for a bed. Is that what you want?”
He let go of me and I fell down to the stone floor. Mother started doing the dishes. The floor was hard and I knew my knees would bruise, as would my arm.
I hid my face in my hair. “Father. I want you to love me.”
His voice changed. “I do love you, but if you don’t stay away from that boy no one will love you. You won’t sleep another night under my roof.”
I baked cakes for the sermon with my mother. She sang and enjoyed herself.
“Mary, you haven’t got a trace of flour on your apron. I don’t know how you do it. Your hands are the steadiest I’ve seen.”
“Mother, what exactly happened at Mr. Gibson’s house?”
“Hold your tongue, Mary! Not a word. It’s Saunders house. I hope you pay attention today in church. Your sister wasn’t nearly this much trouble.”
We arranged the cakes, the cookies and the bread in the back room and helped Father Geary before the sermon began. Jane came with Hank ‘wooden face’ Edison, Will and Joey. She looked twenty years older than me. The first thing she asked was about Mr. Gibson. My mother whispered something and Jane held her hand against her mouth, just as Father Geary did. I wasn’t allowed to sit next to Jane.
A ship at sea has two options when the wind changes; follow the stream or pick up the oars.
Father Geary’s voice boomed from the altar and past the twenty rows of captivated listeners, bounced against the church-doors and echoed up in the painted ceiling.
Society changes. Values don’t. Our community is proud of its rich heritage. The fine Saunders family built this church. Mr. Saunders paid for it and helped build it. I was just a boy back then so the only help I could offer was to carry water. Our beloved Father Hope witnessed the christening of almost everyone here. He was always proud over the church this community built. Even though some of you weren’t here to put a brick on the wall, you still contributed. You still do, because we still build this church. Every day. Old Mr. Benson painted the ceiling. And Mr. Edison, how many times have you fixed a bench, repaired a chair or replaced a window? Mrs. Foster has baked for us all today. It takes her two days with the help of sweet Mary. How many weeks, months and years does it add up to now? These are our values. Society changes. Values don’t. When the wind changes we need to pick up the oars and steer us to the righteous path.
The church door opened. A wind blew in my hair. I closed my eyes and let the sensation settle in my neck before turning around. All of the community’s citizens were here. All except one. Curvy chestnut hair, untamed. A clean face, lips just separated. His eyes fixed, unwavering, upon Father Geary.
“Oh I’m sorry. I’m late? I got this message ‘God gives cancer to godless city folks’. I figured I would contact one of you people. Is there anyone here with direct contact to God? Maybe you in the white robe. Because I think God made a mistake. You see, my father, an actual father, was religious and if you guessed puking blood every day for two years made him more religious, then you’re correct. By the end he couldn’t speak about anything else. So either God made a mistake when he gave cancer to my father – and not to me – or, and this is probably more likely since God is infallible, someone accidentally wrote godless city folks but really meant every one… all… every single one.”
He looked around at the different faces of the church and finally locked eyes with me. I couldn’t look away so I pinched my bruised arm. Small whispers began, but were soon interrupted by the big voice of Father Geary.
“Are your theatrics over? I’m sorry your father passed away. He sounds like an honorable man. You’d do well to follow in his footsteps.”
His eyebrows curved round his brown eyes. “Yes I would.”
“There is a seat saved for you, young Mr. Gibson. Today’s sermon might be to your liking.”
“Too bad I need to go. But I’m sure someone will give me notes later.”
He threw the piece of paper on the church floor and exited. After a moment’s silence Father Geary picked up where he was.
I served coffee and cookies from table to table. Everyone talked about him. I tried to listen, but my mother pushed me gently in the back to keep moving. We were told to walk straight home after. I couldn’t see anything from the window in my room. Father stayed in church to discuss young Mr. Gibson with Mr. Edison and Mr. Benson.
Three days passed without a word about him. Perhaps he didn’t leave the house. Or maybe he was injured. I had to check to see if he was alright. I took my coat and hid a small wooden stick in my inner pocket, just in case.
I sneaked up to the house when no one was around. Two notes hanged on the front door. Spackling paste and old colors flaked on the side. I knocked. I regretted it immediately.
Should I stay or run? This street is so quiet. Where is everybody? Maybe he’s out somewhere. Maybe they took him somewhere.
Then I heard him inside. He looked at me from the side window and smiled. It was definitely a city smile. I took a step down on the porch. He swung open the door and leaned out. Chest hair was visible and the smooth skin on his chest from my angle. I couldn’t look at it. It was impolite. I had to take a step up the porch, so I couldn’t see down his shirt.
“Hi! Welcome to my condemnation. Because I guess you’re here to condemn me to hell?” His voice and movement were animated. Not in a silly way, but in a passionate way. “I’ll save you the trouble. You will die horribly and live dead – even though that doesn’t make any sense – in even more horror. Duly noted. I will think of you when the flames burn me alive… even though I’m dead-”
“What are you painting?”
His eyebrows rose. He pouted his lips to the side and turned his head. I must have stood… or maybe he leaned in such a way that it was possible to see down his shirt.
“How do you know I paint?”
“You have paint in your hair.”
“This is how city folks dye their hair.”
“I have a stick.”
“Yes. I have a stick and I didn’t know if I should tell you or not. But I know you can’t carry a concealed weapon so I thought it would be best to let you know that I do in fact carry a weapon.”
“So if you wouldn’t mind answering my question so I can go home. Because I just came down here because I needed to know. And now you know I carry a weapon.”
He stood up, tall as the older Benson brother, wiped his hands on his jeans and crossed his arms. He smiled without showing any teeth.
“What are you painting?”
“Ah right. That’s why you came down here. Well since you must know, stick and all, I’m painting a part of the garden. The trees just came alive under the moonlight. It probably doesn’t make any sense to you, being a Christian, but I thought it was frightfully beautiful.”
“You’re right.” I remembered my place. “You’re right in that I don’t understand it. I need to go now. My father doesn’t want us talking.”
“Ah well my father hasn’t really spoken up about the subject, but perhaps he’d forbid it too. Let’s not talk just to be safe. I’ve got hair to dye and… haven’t you got cookies to bake?”
“So you were listening? You stood outside and listened!”
He laughed with his ribcage, his white teeth, his Adam’s apple and his eyes. “Caught! It’ll be our little secret. Just as our little conversation. Take care, sweet Mary.”
“Mr. Kevin Gibson.”
Some days I saw him leave the house, but I didn’t dare to leave my house at the same time. What if people saw us together! During sermons I closed my eyes and imagined Mr. Kevin Gibson storming in, but he never did of course.
I awoke to the clawing aroma of smoke. Gibson’s house was on fire! Father and mother were already awake and watched as the neighbors tried to put it out, but it was lost. Mr. Gibson cried, yelled and fell on his knees. I wanted to stay, but father shoved me inside. Not even the embers could be seen from my window.
Father Geary sat by the radio while the wives and the girls sewed. He noticed some gossip. “Girls, not in here. If you must gossip so, the fire probably started from a candle and all that turpentine. He is a painter that young boy. Like we haven’t had enough problems with him already. I pity him. Those folks can never get into heaven.”
“Mary, control yourself!” Mother slapped my wrist and continued stitching. “He means faggots of course.”
I whispered to mother. “Mr. Gibson is a homosexual?”
Jane answered. “All artsy people are.”
A few days later he and a crew of city folk began to build a new house. I walked by a few times. Mr. Gibson smiled, but quickly shook his head in an attempt to be funny. He had paint in his hair. Teal paint. He painted the entire house in teal! Both my mother and father complained, but were never so sure of Gibson’s homosexuality. I was allowed to visit him. I didn’t put my coat on. It was really too warm and would look silly. I had to leave without it.
Teal Victorian house with white corners and a little gazebo. No porch to walk up. I could just ring the bell and not risk looking down his shirt.
He had a tight t-shirt on and opened quicker this time.
“Mary! What a surprise!”
“I don’t have my coat.”
“No. And I thought you were a stickler for weapon and fashion.”
I snorted and held my hand over my face. He laughed like he did. I had to change the subject.
“Too bad about the turpentine.”
“Yea really too bad. Especially since I don’t use turpentine.”
“I thought the turpentine started the fire.”
“It did. It did. The firemen found three cans on my front yard. The saddest part wasn’t that I lost all my paintings, but I also lost the inspiration. The trees. You remember them right?” I nodded. “Yea, I figured you might. I would invite you in but I know how-”
“I can come in.”
“Really? No concealed sticks or anything?”
“Alright then. Do come in.”
The wooden floors had a rustic feeling to them; uneven and rugged. I knew they weren’t old, but they felt it. He made clay vases, cups and pitchers. He painted them and sold them to a retailer. I watched him paint a kitten with precision. A boy – a man – painting a kitten on a cup is definitely an artsy person.
“So…? You haven’t said anything for thirty minutes. I do enjoy your company, but haven’t you got a bed time?”
“Yes. I thought you would ask the questions.”
“Really? Yea we can talk about the trees. I just figured you had heard gossip about me and wanted to know, but sure let’s talk about the trees. How did they affect you?”
“Do you remember what you said to me? A few weeks ago. You said they looked frightfully beautiful.”
“That’s exactly it. I sneaked in here when I was a child-”
“… And I saw the trees and my sister and I made up stories. Some were ghost stories, but others were romantic. Maybe of a fine lord from England and I was a fair lady.”
“Did it ever end in a fire?”
“Isn’t dreaming wonderful? When I was a child I dreamt of living in such a house as this. Maybe this one will burn down as well. Maybe this time I won’t wake up. That’s not so bad. Can you imagine dying in a dream?”
I quivered and broke a glass. I never saw it next to me, but it crashed in the floor. I began to cry, uncontrollably.
“Mary, it’s alright. It’s just a glass. It’s not something I made. I bought it in a store somewhere. It cost me a dollar. Maybe – maybe – two dollars. It’s a city glass. They don’t even believe in god.”
“I didn’t mean to break anything. I don’t want your things to break.”
His hand was soft on my arm. Steady and soft. Warm. “I know, Mary.”
“I need to go. I will replace your glass.”
“You don’t need to-”
“Yes I do. I…” I wanted to touch him. I didn’t remember if I had touched him or if he had touched me. “I do have to.”
A week later I woke up to the smoke again. The house stood finished for two weeks before being burnt to the ground. No funeral.
The Father commented on it on a sermon. “The godless faggot doesn’t deserve a funeral.”