More than five hours had passed and still nothing. So, I sat and waited at a small café on Clinton Street. An easy place with white tables and soft lanterns that hung from the brick wall. I settled outside and had a brandy. The afternoon was auburn and cool. And I wondered why the past seemed to linger in this place, why it oozed from the pores of the buildings, the sidewalk cracks, from the folds of crow’s feet and eye veins and easy, sunburned wrinkles of smiling mouths and foreheads.
I thought about the librarian. Her simple smile, her painless eyes. I thought about the way she smelled, that faint scent of old perfume, the kind my aunt used to wear. Everyone smelled like lilac here. I sipped my brandy and thought about her voice, the nervousness, the thrill of speaking. Maybe there was something worth living for, after all. Maybe if it didn’t come today, it would never come. But then the pain set in again, and I stopped thinking, and took a sip of brandy, and felt sorry for myself.
If I could just fade into the easy night, maybe I could fool myself. Maybe I could become one of them, one of these simple creatures with painless eyes. And no one would know. No one could see. Not even me. Maybe I could coat it with brandy. I took another sip. And took a deep breath, in with the dusk, in with the scent of grass and willow trees and distant harbor oils and fried foods, in with the past, the sidewalk cracks and auburn skies and confederate ghosts, and in with the scent of lilac.
A violet sunset burned gently against my cheek. I was back in the park across from the old Holmes Estate, and I was numb now. Must have been the brandy, not the drugs. Stopped taking those weeks ago. I blinked slowly. My eyes felt like tanks. They told me to fall, cut my wings. Dig down. Digging now.
I didn’t know her name, so I referred to her glasses, the pointy ones, when I asked for her at the desk. “Karen,” the clerk said. “She left about an hour ago.” My heart sank even lower. Another artillery round, the sound of helicopter blades. My insides tightened. The pain was there, like always—the kind that never ceases but that you only become aware of at certain times. Like now. Like cannons. I drifted out into the street, through the park.
There was a church in the distance. It looked daunting, a final palace. It called to me and I went. Slowly. There was only one man in the church. A slow, peaceful man in black. I wondered if it was closed, but he told me a house of worship never closes. It was an elaborate cathedral. Large, colorful stained-glass windows depicted epic saints, smiling their blessings, their judgments, perhaps, erect upon the many wooden prayer rows. Their large glass faces seemed timeless, not from then, not from now, cartoons. Plastic gods. Glowing rays of a fading afternoon sun spun down between their pupils and legs and ran into the church like white fire, spraying the floor, giving it vision.
“Are you a Christian?” asked the priest. His voice was soft, though not southern. Clean, harder round the edges, like mine, but still easy.
“Used to be,” I said.
I just glared past him, onto the audience of small candles, burning timelessly on the altar before a dying god. “Did something happen?” he asked. He must have assumed certain things about people who had lost a place in their own faiths. Runaways, abandoning their families, losing access to God. Maybe he was right.
“I’d like to find him again,” I said.
“God,” I heard myself say. A sense of honesty washed through me. I wanted peace before I left this world. But I doubted with every inch of my soul that I would find it, even in this place with large stained-glass faces.
The priest smiled, slightly. “Then you have already found him,” he insisted quietly. “You’re just not looking with the right kind of eyes… Tell me, son, why is it that you believe he is not with you now? Have you done something you regret? Seen something? God forgives all who take him into their hearts.”
I looked at him now, for the first time really. He had a gentle face, very round, and red cheeks. Thin white strands of hair across a barren scalp, a friar from the woods in a seventeenth century fable. Large, accepting eyes, bright blue and curious.
“I’m not sure forgiveness is what I need,” I sighed, taking a seat along one of the benches. He sat as well.
“Then what is it?”
“I don’t know… I…” I shook my head, looked to the floor. I was searching for the reason, the reason I came here, to this city, to this church. And now, why was I feeling suddenly open to this man? He was, perhaps, my stairway. And this place, maybe it was the vast, auburn pillars and intricately carved walls that suggested I was no longer in the world I knew, that I was in a different place where freedom and courage and truth would not be harshly spun or twisted.
I looked at him, into his large eyes, then to the altar candles in their small glass hubs. “I just… I guess I just don’t really know anything anymore. I haven’t much thought about God for a long time.”
“Oh?” He wanted more.
“Maybe I was scared,” I said bluntly. “Maybe I still am.”
“And why would you ever be scared to think about God?” he asked.