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Five times Stephen Connor goes to church...

Beneath the Steeple

The pews were hard.

His five year old body was untroubled by the discomfort inherent in rigid wood benches, as the polished surface was ideal for sliding in the new slacks his mother bought for Sunday-only use. One little hand levered against the high back and the other grasped the rounded edge of the seat. Then he'd propel his little body forward, the smooth fabric of his slacks slinging him into the predetermined target. Of course, ramming into his sister would earn him a lecture later. But the activity passed the time as the balding priest mumbled a solemn greeting to the mostly attentive faithful. Revered silence wasn't a natural state for the rambunctious child. When the priest asked the congregation if there was a need to report, a high-pitched 'nope' erupted from the Connor row, adult mortification quickly following. Every head turned to stare down the momentarily shrinking boy until the priest moved the group onto creed recitation. The resumption of his sliding game was halted by his father's disapproving gaze while his mother mouthed the word no around a stifled grin. When his parents returned their focus to the podium, the boy noticed the plethora of hideous Sunday hats and a new game formulated; target practice. Tiny hands clasped and stubby index fingers extended to form a gun and barrel. The feathers and beads on the old ladies' headwear surrendered to Sheriff Stevie. And boredom was relieved until they were released into the far more stimulating world of Sunday brunches and playgrounds. Later, his mother asked if he liked going to church and the honest little boy said no.

The pews were active.

Jackā€“in-the-box bodies entered and exited the rows to console the family and view the body. It seemed that no one could stay seated, smoothing their black skirts and re-button black blazers each time they popped up to greet a newcomer. He didn't join the line to receive hugs from weeping people he didn't recognize. He also didn't look at his sister. Someone at school told him that if he viewed the death mask, he would dream of nothing else. Not that he trusted the source, but the bully did have one part right. The nightmares had already started, even without seeing her. Teresa, wrapped in crisp hospital sheets, would scream for him to pull her away from the consuming light. No matter how tight his grip on her wrist, she was sucked into the haze. So he stood apart from the noisy cousins and tear-stained aunts, sweating in his black suit and trying not to stare at the gleaming white casket. It was misplaced brightness in the gloom of the occasion. And draped in pink flowers, which the purple-adoring girl would have hated. Between the color miscue and the overly fond eulogies, he wondered if his family had ever met her. And for every person that asked if he was alright, he had no trouble saying no.

The pews were filled.

On a sticky August morning, he flinched under the approving eyes of a massive audience. So many witnesses made him nervous. It was a perfect match, they said of the two products of good society combining to further a proud bloodline. The accolades were a weight around his neck and the thought of fleeing crossed his mind. Until the moment the double doors parted and he gasped as she drifted down the aisle in a flowing Cinderella gown. She looked like forever. She would be eternity. He only prayed no objectors would declare his unworthiness. That fairy tale dress had been stripped off in such a rush, it had sustained damage. In retrospect, that was a missed sign. In those first years, he was ready to forfeit his burgeoning career because time with her was the meaning of completeness. But she refused to let him scale back his hours, citing the needs of the faceless who depended on his sharp mind. When she began introducing herself as Mrs. Dr. Connor, suspicion crept in that she'd married him for his occupation. Still, he was grateful for the warm body in his bed that only rolled over when the midnight calls began. Busy lives had little time for worship and they'd only entered a church once during their marriage. That his child must be purified before God was non-negotiable. She'd wanted to skip the baptism ritual but he'd said no.

The pews were empty.

It had taken some time after his separation to convince himself that God would welcome him here. The Catholic church's view on divorce laid another failure across his shoulders. But the desire to be in this place of virtue was strong and he overcame his hesitation to tarnish the sacred halls. Between cases he had time to think, which was never good. And sometimes he would enter the vacant sanctuary and stir the sunbeams filtering through the stained glass windows. From the back of his Sunday school memory, he recalled the story that each colored pane reflected. The brave David stares down a mighty foe. The leader Moses tells the sea to move aside. The cross, looming as a reminder of a perfection he'd never reach. Presented as an inspiring trio, the transparent images let the sun pierce through his gaping flaws. Most days, he just wanted to sit among the relics and breathe. But guilt worked to drive him from the pews. In his early visits, a priest would sometimes try to intercept him to offer council before he escaped. But eventually the robed elders learned to simply nod at the sudden arrivals and departures. No matter how many times they'd offered private confession, the quiet blond stranger always said no.

The pews were waiting.

It wasn't the first time she'd surprised him by her ability to track him down and he questioned his turn toward predictability. It was occasionally disturbing to see long sandy hair caught by the wind as Natalie waited at his sister's grave. Teresa might have had similar hair. Might have possessed comparable strength. Might have smiled with equal warmth. But never had Natalie ventured beneath the steeple to sit inside the church. How she knew he'd need this today was a question best left unanswered. Yet another moment when Natalie was a step ahead, waiting with her limitless patience until he caught up. She leaned heavily against the high wood back, scrutinizing the statues and printed banners with a bored eye. When her gaze moved to the stained glass, he cringed. Could she see his faults as clearly as he did when comparing himself to those righteous and selfless figures? He liked the idea of sacrifice, but always surrendered the wrong things. Family and time were given up in favor of what he believed to be a calling. He's aggressive, letting his deep-rooted anger achieve what diplomacy cannot. He refuses constraints, rebuffs carelessness and rebukes compromise. Still, he can't turn away the ill, no matter how inconvenient their timing or location. Because in every stranger he sees the potential for a white coffin ending. When he confessed to Natalie that he'd forgotten how to say no, her warm hands cradled his face as she promised it was no flaw to say yes.