My father only ever committed two cardinal sins that I know of. The first is that he held a shotgun to my mother’s chin in the bathroom one night and pulled the trigger. The second is that then he went and did it to himself.
Afterward, I could see more clearly. In the dark, I would open my eyes and watch the vines that crept up the walls of my room, curling on the paint. I saw birds that circled above my bed, wheeling like the gulls down at the landfill, and great black snakes like water moccasins gliding on the floor.
For a long time after, I was given to break things—anything small enough to get my hand around. My fingers went clutching after jelly-glasses and teacups, and once I smashed a china bird up against the wall into pieces so little they were like dust when my grandma swept them up. She said the breaking was a sign of the Devil, which seemed a plausible fact, because once I turned my gaze toward the promise of redemption, it stopped.
When Derek Royce moved into the unit next door to us, I did not at first recognize the opportunity for doing good works, and maybe this is because the Morningside apartment complex was not the most likely place for ministry, rickety as it was and backed up against the switching yard. The yard wasn’t noisy like it could have been if the town was booming instead of broken down, but the whistle shrieked late at night and there was always the black, acrid smell of oil burning.
I knew Derek from school, but had always made it a point to keep out of his way. He was what the teachers called boisterous when they felt charitable, and unruly the rest of the time. He wrote obscene sentiments in the bathrooms and was pinched girls in the halls. I think these things were to make himself look bigger, but he also had a strange habit of hunching his shoulders up, like he was trying to disappear.
It was on a Monday that I looked out to see him standing by the curb, kicking loose gravel with the toe of his boot and clearly in a dark mood. I went outside anyway.
“Good morning,” I said as I passed. The street smelled clean, like rain from the night before.
His chin came up fast and there were dark pockets of shadow beneath his eyes. “I don’t see a whole lot good about it.”
I had my paperback copy of Dickens for English class. Derek had nothing, book-bag or otherwise. He was flicking his lighter, cupping it in his palm and letting it burn awhile before taking his thumb off the wheel.
“Doesn’t look so bad from where I’m standing.” I wanted to tell him something better, how he was forgiven. How we’re all forgiven, if only we just ask for it. He didn’t look ready to hear it.
“From where you’re standing?” he said, coming up close so that his toes were almost touching mine. “You’re batshit, you know that?”
He said it like it made him angry, like how I was offended him deeply. I thought he’d say something else, but he just grabbed David Copperfield out of my hand, squeezing hard enough to bend the cover.
Behind him, the apartments were almost the same shade of gray as the sky. Everything seemed quiet, but not the peaceful kind. It was the kind like if everyone just laid down and stopped moving.
There was a purple knot on his forehead, up near the hairline. Although my bedroom shared a wall with his, I had never heard him weep.
“May I have my book back?”
He stared into my face and then flung the book away. It flew badly, pages fluttering towards the sky, and came to rest in a wide puddle.
“That wasn’t necessary,” I said, but Derek was already walking away towards the train yards.
In my room that night, I thumbed through Corinthians and then Hebrews, and couldn’t tell what I was looking for. In my heart, I felt the ache of not being able to show Derek Royce how the world could be good.
I closed the book and did penance for my failings, and for the thoughts I had and kept having about my father, how I could not seem to find forgiveness in my heart. From the other side of the wall, I could hear the noises of somebody taking the Devil out of somebody else with a strap.
In His wisdom, God delivered me, and though at the time, I had the audacity to question it, later I began to see the benefit. No one had delivered Derek. Sometimes at night, I woke to visions of the host, arms aloft and heads wreathed in light, and sometimes only to the sound of someone getting kicked and told how he was worthless and a coward.
I thought of my father more than ever, now that I could hear Derek’s through the wall, how I ought to forgive him, although he was a sinner of the worst measure. I bowed my head and tried to feel the weight of the Word, the glory in forgiving those who have wronged us, but it didn’t come. Instead there was a pale memory of my mother. A cotton blouse, the smell of lilacs and detergent. Sometimes sin is so orange it looks red, and I have to close my eyes. I saw the double barrel, the stock, the trigger and the blue bathroom tile. I imagined her face, blurred as it turned to Heaven.
They stopped me on my way to school. Derek at the front, hands down in his pockets, looking ready to do damage to me if I gave him reason.
“What’s the hurry, preacher-boy?” he said, stepping up close and slinging an arm around my shoulders. He smelled like smoke and deodorant.
“Yeah, you freak.” John Macklin was bigger, with a rough, scabby throat, angry-red from shaving so hard. “You got a tent meeting to get to?”
Carter Carlisle said nothing, but stood back with his hat pulled low, chewing his cigarette-end like a cow works its cud.
“Good morning,” I said, slipping Derek’s arm and walking on.
There was a hard tug at the middle of my back. John Macklin had me by my coat and was pulling me toward him like I weighed hardly anything. My shoes skidded on rock salt and I twisted out of the coat and left it dangling from John Macklin’s hands.
I reached for it, but he yanked it away, grinning wide.
Behind him, Derek glanced up suddenly, into one of the sweetgum trees above the sidewalk, a look on his face the way I sometimes feel, like he already knew just what was going to happen.
“My coat please,” I said, holding out my hand.
John swung the coat then, tossing it high into the sweetgum where it caught there in the branches. It snapped and fluttered, too far out to climb.
“Whatcha gone do now?” John said, grinning his dim grin, passing his hand over his hair.
I reached to undo the top button, for when a man demands our tunic, we must give it gladly and then offer him our cloak. “Would you like my shirt as well?”
“Preacher-boy’s stripping for us,” yelled John Macklin, but I only slid the first button out of its hole and Derek Royce glared hard, like to cut me open just by looking.
Carter was still hanging back, his face turned a little to the side and his chin down against his shoulder, but he was first to talk. “This ain’t right, Derek. You can’t be messing with a crazy boy.”
John Macklin was backing up along the sidewalk, looking smaller now that he wasn’t waving my own coat at me. He turned to go, Carter Carlisle with him and both of them shaking their heads, slow like in awe.
But Derek didn’t follow, not right away. His voice
was low and when he swallowed, it clicked in his throat. “Maybe you got you a psycho-killer for a daddy, but you don’t scare me, you nut-job. I’m more ruinous than you any day.”
I looked back at him and suddenly I was given sight of the two of us, toe-to-toe under the sweetgum. He was a dark slash, leaning forward against the pale background of the sky, while I just looked limp and colorless.
“I venture that’s probably true, Derek.”
I did up my shirt as he walked away. His shoulders were hunched and his hands were shoved down in his pockets. He hawked and spit, but didn’t look back.
After English, Mrs. Allison called me to her desk, looking sweet and sincere. She was new that year, from someplace farther north—Saint Louis maybe, or Topeka. “Where’s your coat, Isaac?”
“It doesn’t matter.”
“Have people been giving you a hard time?” she asked, although she must have had some idea, or she wouldn’t have bothered.
“It’s important to forgive those that trespass against us,” I said.
“I don’t think I understand you. Are you saying that you’re simply forgiving them for taking your coat?”
But forgiveness is no simple thing. It’s the greatest gift we’ve been given in this life. There was a little Christmas snowglobe on Mrs. Allison’s desk. Inside was a village with a clock tower and a bridge.
“He’s got a poor home-life,” I said, watching the snowglobe. I wanted to shake it. “It seems to make it hard for him to be kind.”
“Well, that’s awfully mature of you to be so understanding, Isaac. But even if someone’s having problems, that doesn’t give them license to take it out on you.”
Out the window, the coat was evident, caught and waving in the sweetgum tree. One sleeve was flapping on the wind, beating at the air with its cuff.
“It’s important to love thy neighbor,” I told her. “But it’s more important to love thine enemy.”
Mrs. Allison’s face was like a good porcelain doll, sweet and clean and secret. “What do you think your parents are going to say about all this?”
I stared back and found it impossible to believe that of the things that had transpired in my family, she had no idea. When there’s enough talk to fill a town, you got to wonder how someone could ever escape it. I began to believe that she had no idea about a lot of things.
“His eye is on the sparrow,” I told her. “If He troubles Himself with even the sparrow, how can I doubt His love for me?”
“Isaac, what do you plan to do about your coat?”
I reached out and touched the snowglobe on her desk, just with the tips of my fingers. I suddenly wanted to snatch it up and slam it down on the linoleum so that she would see. The little Christmas village bleeding out across the classroom floor, ruined and going to pieces right in front of her.
I shoved both hands in the pockets of my slacks. “If God clothes the lilies of the field—”
“Okay,” she said, getting up from her desk and smoothing out her skirt. “Okay, we can’t talk about this anymore. I realize some of the boys around here are one big disciplinary disaster, but do you understand that you’re making this easy for them? I don’t care if you don’t take this seriously, but please, just stop provoking people.”
The thought that I provoked Derek, however, was laughable, when he was the one who persecuted me, and I only tried to show him the kindness that anyone deserved. When I only tried to forgive him all his trespasses, without him even asking.
On my way home, I cut across through the train yard, watching my breath puff out in clouds. My shirt felt thin and my coat still hung fifteen feet up in the sweetgum, dipping out over the street in a place I could not get to.
I came around the freight shed and Derek Royce was standing by a Union Pac boxcar, smoking and blowing on his hands. There was a bottle of Miller High Life sitting up on the coupling beside him, half-empty.
I said nothing to him, and he seemed stiff, silent with the cold. I was past him before he spoke and when he did, it was harsh and sounded like someone had a hand around his throat and was squeezing.
“What,” he said. “Don’t you got anything inspirational to say to me?”
I looked him in the face. I said, “Good afternoon, Derek,” then kept going.
I didn’t turn when I heard him behind me, boots crunching on the fill. His hands hit me hard between my shoulders and I went sprawling in the gravel and the scrap. The ground was cold and when I pushed myself back up, my palms were bleeding, full of little bits of limestone and coal, and the elbow was out in one of my sleeves.
Derek stood close, leaning so he could stick his face right up into mine. “Why you so good all the time, huh? Why you never do nothing back?”
In that moment I was given sight, but different now that I was awake. I saw his teeth, broken off in the front like ruined china. The bruise along his jaw, yellowing around the edges.
I held out my arms, offering my body. “I’m only as good as I know how to be.”
“Bullshit!” He hit me in the ribs and I sucked in my breath and straightened. His eyes were bright and his chin was square, but trembling. I raised my arms again.
This time, he hit me in the face and there was an explosion of light, the smell of beer and diesel fuel. My ears hummed and it took me a couple seconds to remember to turn my other cheek, but I did it, reeling from the force of his hand.
“I want you to tell me how God is good!” His voice was breaking. “I want you to tell me what makes God so wonderful.”
“He loves you. He sees your faults, and He loves you anyway.”
His fist connected with my mouth and I fell backwards, hands skating over the ground, fetching up in a pile of limestone and scrap. Something jabbed into my palm and my fingers closed tight around a hunk of coal as the pain shot up my wrist like electricity.
When I got to my feet, I was panting as hard as Derek, trying to straighten up.
“Why you gotta be so good? Ain’t nothing good here!” He was still shouting, but his voice sounded far away. His eyes were all pupil in the dusky yard. His breath was jerking out of him in huge gasps. “Your daddy was a killer!”
Sometimes sin is so orange it looks red, but there in the train yard, the color was gone. Everything was gray and black—hard to see the difference between objects. I shut my eyes against it. Behind my eyelids, there were squiggles of movement and light. I could taste the salt of my cut lip. Lot’s wife turned toward the destruction, when she would have done better to look away, but sometimes it’s awfully hard to turn your back on your fellow man.
I still held the hunk of coal, heavy and slippery with blood. Derek stood facing me, breathing in loud hoarse sobs like he needed more than ever to be comforted.
I opened my eyes and stepped back, raising my hand to give him what he wanted.
Photo by calico_13