by NORA BONNER
No more breath for him now: lungs deflated, spirit departed. I had a week left in seventh grade. Evening after evening I walked four doors down to check for Greg’s television in the side room, and evening after evening PBS flickered with Novaor Nature while his back faced the window with the boxy shadows of his Lazyboy and oxygen. And then one Thursday night, the room was dark, and his wife’s car was gone. He’d told me that he was ready to meet Jesus in Glory. People from our church community always said that, no matter their state of health. All that week, whenever I’d picture the word emphysema,it sounded to me like a place in Greek mythology or a word to describe a Bible character’s transformation, like Saul’s conversion to Paul. Now it invoked something closer to its actual meaning: the name of one of Satan’s lady-demons, slowly choking a man to death. She was terrifying, but the strange thing was, a part of me wanted to see the blue damage she’d done to his face.
The next evening around six p.m., I came outside to find my parents with Larry Hamel sitting on our back patio. Larry still wore his postal service uniform. I’d just spent an afternoon upstairs in my little brother’s room, where the two of us had disappeared into The Legend of Zelda. My mom was in the middle of pouring me some iced tea out of a porcelain pitcher when Larry said, “I’m not sure what he believed, exactly, but before he stopped coming around on Sundays, he’d say some things that just didn’t sound right.”
Though Greg had been a part of our small, non-denominational church since before I was born, he’d stopped coming around the previous year when the other elders finally drew the line and told him they didn’t like what he was saying. He was a teaching elder who hadn’t taught that often, maybe once every three months. For a long time, he taught a Thursday night Bible study that I attended with my mother, but his wife, Gracie, called it off when Greg’s health problems flared. She still came around on Sundays from time to time, most likely to see her sister. Not her sister in the Lord, but her actual sister, Beth. She’s Larry’s wife.
Even after the Bible study ended, I’d go over to Greg and Gracie’s. Nobody made a fuss about it, but still, when I told my parents where I was headed, I put her name first, Going to Gracie and Greg’s,quieting my voice when I named him. Greg’s perspective was always a little different from the others, but he really stirred the controversy one morning when he said it was okay for us to question why a loving God would put his own son to death, that it’s normal to see the cross as a form of child abuse. My dad hosted an elders’ meeting at our house right after church on that Sunday to discuss it, and the six men crowded our dining room table to interrogate Greg about what on earth he had been reading to make him think it was okay to say those things while he was teaching us. I heard Greg say, Reading? This is about what I’m reading? I hid in the kitchen, pressed to the side of our fridge and I heard Larry say, This is serious, Greg. This is about a flock.I darted back upstairs when somebody got up to refill their coffee.
“Here’s what I thought,” Larry said. He put his glass out for my mother to refill, watching her pour while he sorted his phrasing. Larry was the theology go-to guy, the only elder who’d been to seminary. “I had my suspicions,” he said. “He was reading some unorthodox doctrines, universalism and whatnot.”
Larry sipped without going into any more detail. My dad tapped the table in front of me and said, “Not sure if you knew, but he passed on last night.”
“Who passed?” I said, but my attempt to play like I didn’t know who they were discussing fell short, evidenced in the incredulous way my dad paused before he answered.
“Greg.” He pushed back his seat a little ways from the table. “Larry and Beth just stopped by the house to see Gracie.”
The two men and my mother paused for my reaction. I looked away and sipped my tea.
“This girl here was his buddy,” Larry said, blocking my attempt to defuse tension. “You hung out over there sometimes, Sarah, is that right?”
I’m not sure if buddywas the word I’d choose, though I couldn’t think of anything to replace it. I didn’t like the accusation in his tone.
Larry was looking at me like he was trying to read my mind with his light brown eyes. “Probably not good for any of our youngsters to spend too much time with him in his last days.”
My mom glared at Larry a moment. Then she turned to me and said, “Where’s your brother?”
“Nintendo,” I said.
“The pasta,” she said, as if it were an excuse, and went inside.
After a moment, my father asked Larry if he wanted to stay for dinner and he said, “Not this time.”
My dad looked at me. “You going to help your mom?”
“Not this time,” I said, but my dad’s eyes shot trouble. Inside, I grabbed four sets of silverware, plates, and napkins while my mom drained the fettuccine, returned the glob to the pot and smothered it with meat sauce. She lifted the pot with mittens, called for my brother Jordan to come outside and grab the green beans on his way. I followed her to the patio, balancing both arms full of table settings, but halted to see Larry was still out there.
“What did you mean it wasn’t good for our kids to be around him?” my mom said before setting down the pot.
“Well, anybody really,” Larry said. “But, as I was just saying to Kevin, Sarah’s at that age, you know. She’s at that age. Gotta watch out for the wolves’ voices leading her astray.” My thirteenth birthday was next week, but from his tone of voice, I might as well have been turning nine.
Later that night, Larry’s words throbbed in my head, right behind my eyelids. “Wolves’ voices.” By wolves he meant unorthodox, new, of which Greg’s words had been both. Greg had told me to dismiss that kind of thinking, their idea that if it didn’t match up to how they read the Bible, it wasn’t true. I fumed at Larry for being so condescending toward me. I doubted he’d talk to my brother like that, even though Jordan was four years younger.
I tried to imagine what it would be like when Larry and others stopped talking to me like a kid after I was a teenager, but that flaming, voluptuous lady demon reappeared. I imagined Greg struggling in a hospital bed, trying to say something, and I realized what he was trying to say was a confession. Strange once more, the sight wasn’t frightening to me. It was like I was being transported into some place, seedy but intriguing, the way his living room felt where I’d watch him smoke and sip whiskey. He’d switch seamlessly from what Jesus meant by “streams of living water” to how when I was a teenager, I’d have to be picky about boys, how I’d have to look for the ones who’d die for me. He studied me as if he were determining what made me beautiful—my hair falling from my ponytail, the gloss over my lips—and his eyes danced with mischief and appreciation. But the man who’d looked at me that way was dead. I accepted some exoneration from Greg in the slowing of my breath, the breath that I, not he, still had.
The next Monday, at school, I couldn’t bring Greg’s name to my lips, and I moved through my classes quietly, to myself, speaking only to my teachers when they called on me. My friends from the neighborhood, Dionna and Simone, could tell something was upsetting me, but at lunch they let me keep to myself while they went on about pool parties and day camps that awaited them in the pending summer. I didn’t know how to talk to them about Greg and his death. The messiness with my church was one thing—a forbidden topic from the outside world. I’d visited him initially because I wanted him to know that I cared about him, that I still respected him. I’d kept visiting him because he talked to me like an adult. But all Dionna and Simone would see was that he was old. I pictured the two of them squealing, telling me to stay away from him, that’s nasty. They wouldn’t understand. He was dead. I didn’t know how to talk about it when what I felt wasn’t grief. If I’d said, I should feel sadder, they would say, see? So they talked about their summer plans, and I kept picturing Greg in the hospital, reaching toward me while the flaming woman stood over him with one hand on his throat, the other over his mouth.
At night, I stood on my porch after dark and watched Beth come out of Greg and Gracie’s house. She lifted her skirt as she climbed into her sedan and for what seemed like a while, checked her face in the soft light in the mirror on the back of her sun visor. I don’t think she saw me. Finally, her car strobed by between strips of darkness and the peach pools from streetlamps. Greg’s house stood in the gap between those lamps, now in total darkness, his windows in shadow.
Nearly a week later, on the first Friday when school had let out, my father handed me the paper folded back around Greg’s obituary. Neither of my parents had said anything about him dying since Larry had come by, and though I’d thought about it, it didn’t register as certainty until I read what Gracie or one of his siblings had written about him:
Gregory Andrew Mason, born in Detroit, Michigan on August 13, 1933, passed away on June 5th, 1998. He attended Northwestern High School, class of 1949, and retired after working for the Detroit Iron Workers for thirty-five years. He is survived by his wife of forty-three years, Susan Grace, and his son, Michael, daughter-in-law, Kelly, and five-year-old grandson, Joey. The funeral will take place Saturday, June 13th, eleven a.m. at Henry Rice Funeral Home in Redford.
I put down the paper and went outside to check if Gracie was home, if she had anybody over.It was humid out. Hot wind pushed what would be rainclouds if they could hang around long enough. Gracie had parked her burgundy station wagon at the end of their driveway, and I could see their stairwell through the glass storm door, the oak one wide open as if she was just stopping in for a moment. They had one of the less attractive houses on Edinborough, shaped like a barn, its siding painted a rusty red with a short crumbling cement front porch and a vinyl flag of a peace dove flapping by the door. The rest was living things taking over the yard in full summer vibrancy: violets dotted the overgrown grass and echoed the purple clematis vine blooming on their trellis.
If Greg were still alive, I would have walked right in without knocking, turned left at the staircase and into the side room to watch the World Cup start in France. He had set up cable for the ESPN access, intending to cancel it after the tournament. If he hadn’t been sick, I might have found him wearing a solid green t-shirt over some paint-splattered blue jeans from his latest remodeling job around the house, reading one of George MacDonald’s sermons, which he would summarize as he did most everything he’d read of that sort: God is always better than we think.Gracie might have called me into the kitchen to give me a hug and hand me a washed-out orange juice bottle full of the Arnold Palmer she’d fixed for Greg and me. She’d watch me pour my portion over a plastic cup of ice, and over a tumbler of ice and a shot of whiskey for Greg. During my visits, I was always the one who delivered his drinks. Even then, at sixty-five, Greg’s hand trembled as he sloshed the drink around to mix it. He’d sometimes spill some of the drink across his chest, blotching the cotton. There were rings on the side table from where the drink dripped down the side of the glass and settled into the wood.
It seemed shameful now, the thought of going in there without Greg, standing in the foyer with Gracie. The last time I went inside—a little over two weeks ago—I had noticed how Gracie had pinned my school photo on their fridge on the front of their freezer door. Now, every time she went to freeze another casserole someone had left on her doorstep, she’d have to look at my freckled shoulders and pursed lips. What if she didn’t really like me coming by all those times?
I kept walking through our neighborhood, past bigger houses with towers like castles, ones with two stories, white shutters and columns, and other houses like our Cape Cod. The lush June lawns and full maples and birches did little to help me mourn, but in the growing wind I did experience once more that strange release. It was true what Larry said—I was close to Greg, considered him a great friend who had taught me so much. More than information, Greg gave me permission to let go of some of my beliefs that didn’t seem to jive with the notion of a loving God, like the claim that those born in far-away countries who might never have heard the Gospel will burn after death. He told me stories about people who were different from us, like the laughing nun who realized God had a sense of humor, or the Chippewa man whose tribe believed that the journey to the next life would require traveling through mountain tunnels. He woke up on a train out West and thought, for the rest of his life, that he was dead!
He’d make statements that wouldn’t please my parents, so I never repeated them at home, things like, Don’t ever listen to anyone who’s said they’ve heard directly from God.Still, he didn’t shy away from contradicting himself. He’d retell stories he’d heard on the radio, like the one about the woman on the Eastside who heard God telling her to paint Bible scenes on the sides of a crack house. Batshit crazy, right?he’d say, with a twinkle in his eye. But these guys were seeing her murals and going in there! They were turning their lives around for the Lord!And he’d cap them off with the same phrase that pushed through my thoughts in other moments: I don’t know anything.I’m just trying to work with what I’ve got.
Greg repeated those anecdotes, if not to me, then to anyone else who’d stopped by to see him in the year since he’d left our church. Or was he asked to leave? I was not able to hear what the men had decided, how they’d decided it, how they carried out that decision. I never could have, because for a girl like me, that meeting was not my territory and as a woman, that knowledge would never be in my reach. From what I knew, there was an elders’ meeting in my dining room, and after that meeting, Greg stopped coming around. That was all the elders wanted me to know.
It was hotter out, more humid and I returned to the house all sweaty. My dad was at work, cleaning out his classroom and submitting grades, but my mom was sitting at the dining room table finishing a plate of corned beef hash. She wore a black and gray cotton dress and her hair was still damp from a recent shower. “I’m leaving in thirty minutes,” she said. After reading the obituary, my mind had been too distracted by the funeral to remember the wake.
We drove along a wide avenue dotted with rotting buildings, boarded up and abandoned: what was once a Taco Bell, a bookstore, a greasy hamburger joint. The city was gorgeous on one street, devastated on the next. The survivors of downturn were churches, both storefronts and repurposed cathedrals whose congregations had long ago fled to the suburbs. There were also hair salons still in business, the Du Drop In,Trendsetters Hair Design, a few nightclubs of brick painted dark purple or black, and a long parking lot where someone had established a pop-up to sell gravestones. Would Greg have a gravestone? He’d told me he thought the Buddhists were the best at death: burn the bodies, use the soil for other resources.
Months after the elders dismissed him in my dining room, I asked him, What did they say to you? and his answer, Nothing helpful, struck me as an avoidance, a way to shut me out, like the elders shut me out of their knowledge. But maybe Greg had given me permission to determine whether what the elders taught me about God was helpful. Giving permission was the opposite of demanding submission. Greg’s experience proved that even the elders had to submit or they would no longer be called our church elders, but submission was not the only way. And that was the thing—if Greg had to submit, it wasn’t just the women who had to. As a woman, I could choose whether to take Greg’s permission to think outside of the elders’ constraints. But was that permission actually bad for me? I’d been an eager girl at his feet, looking up to him. The look he gave back—I couldn’t linger on it. Did I go to his house looking for reasons to stop going to church? Where did my sense of relief in his death come from?
There were only three cars in the parking lot when we got to the funeral home, and I became nervous again about what to say to Gracie. Her daughter-in-law, Kelly, met us at the entryway. I only knew who she was from photos. Greg’s son Michael had met her down in Austin, where he’d been living since after college. She was the kind of woman who spent extra time in the morning getting her hair to straighten and gloss, who regularly visited nail salons and tanning booths. Gracie wasn’t like this at all but the kind of woman who quietly stood behind the scenes while her husband had the attention, the kind my father praised as being a “true sister.” Was Kelly a “true sister”? I didn’t even know if she believed in God. It was strange to think that Michael, with a father like Greg, would go for “high maintenance,” the kind of look for women outside of our church. Maybe Michael didn’t believe in God now, either. Would I have been attracted to him if he wasn’t married? I looked for a younger version of Greg in Michael’s light eyes and dark hair, but saw mostly the sharp, distinct nose of his mother. Greg’s grandson slept with his head in Michael’s lap, probably wiped out from traveling.
I followed my mother to the couch where Gracie sat with a box of tissue at her side, a sheet of it balled in her fist, though she wasn’t crying at that moment. She wore a velvet black dress with a V-neck that complemented a mostly gray bob. She stood and hugged my mother for a long time, and in their embrace I sensed a closeness, a history between them I’d not known about. Gracie didn’t turn to hug me next. She didn’t seem to notice I was there.
Behind me, Larry and his wife, Beth, came into the parlor. Larry sat on the couch near Greg’s son and I turned away, hoping he wouldn’t see me. The way he was talking about Greg the day after he died still irked me.
Though Greg had requested a cremation, his family had still displayed the body, and as I walked toward it I realized I was walking on my toes. The tips of my white slip-ons sunk into the thick carpet. There was a curtain over a nearby window, which gave the room a lavender glow, diffused by a soft lamp with a cream, shell-shaped cover. Now at the coffin, I imagined Greg with his eyes open, his mouth poised in shock, but of course the mortician had fashioned his features and painted them to look as peaceful as possible. He did look peaceful, despite his obvious make-up. His eyes looked as though they had just fallen shut and might open any second to look at me with a gleam in them. Something in his nose looked less than natural, though, and from where I was standing, I could see right up his dark nostrils. I wondered for a moment if cleaning them out was a part of the process, picturing the way Egyptians removed organs before storing them in cat-shaped vases.
There was a sweet pungent smell nearby. Peace lilies.
My mother came beside me, touched Greg’s folded hand a second, and guided me away from the body with her fingers on my back. Near the entranceway, Beth was heading down a stairwell, and my mom whispered, asking if I wanted to get something to eat down there, since I hadn’t had time to grab any lunch after my walk. I said sureand we found Beth alone at a table, near another table with sandwich fixings. My mother sat across from her while I piled turkey slices onto a roll. I sat near a dead fireplace and watched them.
My mother put her arm on the table, stretching it before her as she said, “Gracie was saying he was ready to see Jesus.”
Beth hummed in affirmation. “Gone to glory.”
They sat quietly a moment before my mom stood to grab some lemonade from the dispenser. “How did he go, eventually?” she asked. “I mean, have you talked to Gracie?”
“Gracie said he’d been ready for days, really ready when he was having trouble breathing on the way to the hospital.” She took off her glasses and wiped them on her black blazer. “In a way, I think this was God’s best for her.”
My mom glanced at me, looking as though she was hoping it was okay that I was in the room, but Beth didn’t seem to mind.
“He was becoming more difficult over the last year,” Beth whispered. “He’d told my sister that he wasn’t sure what he believed.”
My mother leaned over her arm. “That’s terrible.”
“It is,” Beth said. “But then there was a change over the last month or so, after he went in the hospital the first time. That oxygen, monitoring him. He was just constantly uncomfortable and,” Beth bowed her head, saying into her chest, “he was getting real mean, telling her he was tired of her. He told the nurse, ‘Get her out of here. I’ve seen enough of her.’”
“Oh my God.”
“And you know, I’m her sister. Nobody treats my sister like that.”
My mother sipped her lemonade, set down her Styrofoam cup.
“Poor guy, you know?” said Beth. “To think his faith used to be so strong, standing the way Jesus tells us to stand.”
The roll felt extra chewy in my mouth, flavorless, and it took a long time before I was able to swallow.
I visited him for the last time just a week before he’d died. It was the first and only time I’d seen him on oxygen, and the first time I’d seen him since the time that Beth mentioned, when he’d almost died at Beaumont nearly a month before. I’m ready to see Jesus,he said, Ready for Glory,with more certainty and evangelism than I was used to from him. Even though he was breathing from a tube, he was still drinking. His cigarettes, of course, had been tossed away, and he complained that it was tough to drink without smoking. Still, he drank.
It was the only time I stayed up with him after Gracie went to bed, and the fact that it was a school night made my remaining there feel all the more gritty. By the end, his stories had slurred away and his attention turned to finding out things about me: What makes you tick, Sarah? Why don’t you have a boyfriend? Do you need me, Sarah? How will you live without me? How will you remember me, Sarah? Do you think I could live without you? Are you going to turn on me, like the others? His words ached, more nasal from the clear tube between his nostrils, wrapping around the neck. I followed them down, the clear strands meeting at his throat and stretching to his chest, across his lap and into the machine.
He coughed and patted his collar bone, searching. His coughing turned fitful and he couldn’t speak, but his eyes asked me to move the tubing, do something to make him more comfortable. As soon as my fingers touched the plastic near his neck, he put his dry hand over mine and grippedit there, pressing it below his ear like I was taking his pulse until he found his breath again. This drained me to momentary paralysis, until a voice within urged me to say goodnight.
Nora Bonner writes and teaches in Atlanta, where she is a PhD student in fiction at Georgia State University. Her stories have appeared or will appear in several journals and anthologies including Shenandoah, Fiction Southeast, North American Review, Third Coast, Quarterly West, and Best American Non-Required Reading. She is originally from Detroit.