Tomorrow, the new proprietors of the church move in, and I am off to live with my sister in New York. Forty-some-odd faces fill in all but the two front rows. A couple of teenagers hide beneath their hoodies in the back row, looking as if they are praying on rosaries, but in actuality they are silently texting their friends. The high number of parishioners is likely due to the promise of food and beer at Jake’s Bar following my last sermon. She sits there next to her husband of eighteen years. A bruise—or a smudge of mascara—shines from her left cheek.“Let’s say you’re a remarkable gardener and during a severe drought your neighbors seek your help with their failing gardens. They know you can make a tomato grow in a desert. You want to help, so you neglect your own garden to help your neighbors, only to come home to a wasteland.” Most of the faces in the pews are weathered-looking, like borrowed shoes. I can’t say I’ve been much help to any of them. “Just so,” I continue, “if oxygen masks come down in an airplane, and you have a child, you are told to put on your own mask first. Why?”
One of the teens glances up from his lap and looks around quickly, then looks down again.
“Because you both may die if you try and put the mask on a panicked child first,” I say in response to my own question. “Save yourself, then you can help others.” I suppose that’s what I’m doing. I’m showing her how to put her mask on first.
I shouldn’t have poked my nose so far into her affairs. But that’s what ministers do; we poke. She told me, “He loves me in his own way. He would be devastated if I left.” I admit (to myself only) that I fantasized about her almost every day of my five years here. I imagined writing a sermon that would set her free. She would leap up from the pew, stunning him and everyone else as she rushed to my side.
I end the sermon on an upbeat note, which falls flat. Maybe I should have gone with something bolder. For once.
A groan of feet and books fills up the church as the congregation retrieves their hymnals on cue.
“May the Father protect and guide you,” I send out the Last Call.
“And also with you,” they return to me in kind.
The parishioners pour out of the church like children being released early from school. There will be no reception line today and I am relieved; I don’t have to shake her hand, with him lording over her.
She will never leave him. She didn’t even want my forwarding address. So I posted it on the bulletin board in the foyer next to outdated announcements.
Everyone makes their way across the street to Jake’s. I follow behind, the shepherd following his sheep.
“Is it true?” Jake calls out to me as I sit down on the stool nearest the door.
“Probably. Is what true?” I reply. Jake brings me a Lake Louie beer made at a local brewery, Warp Speed Scotch Ale. Jake sells from twenty-some micro brews, most of them in the Midwest. The Budweiser sign was taken down a long time ago and replaced with a cardboard “Furthermore” sign—Furthermore being a small brewery in Spring Green, Wisconsin.
“I heard some Wall Street banker bought the church and is turning it into a microbrewery,” Jake says, placing a menu in front of me. “On me.”
“Yup. It’s true. Apostle Beer,” I tell him. Microbrew drinkers know the list of local breweries like I know the books of the New Testament: Furthermore, Lake Louis, Capital, New Glarius; Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John.
I look over the menu. About a year ago, Jake’s menu went from being a chalkboard of four items—burgers, fries, cheese curds, and frozen pizza—to a four-page extravaganza. The burger choices alone take up one full page. The Curd Burger, with its deep-fried cheese curds, smoked-peppered bacon, special BBQ sauce, and side choices, takes up five lines of this menu. The pickled pig knuckles that once stared at you from behind the bar have been replaced by six choices of flavored Kettle Chips.
Jake got so busy at the restaurant, given the new menu and an increase in tourists, that he had to hire a short-order cook, a distant cousin of his wife, whose dairy farm didn’t make the last crisis.
I give in and order the Curd Burger, never having tasted one. New York is unlikely to offer such fare.
It doesn’t take me long to drink down my first beer, which Jake then replaces with a Kiss My Lips Pale Ale from the same brewery. Throughout the night, parishioners offer their good-byes to me. No compliments or gratitude, just well wishes. By my third beer, Coon Rock Cream Ale, I feel more like a groom in a reception line than a minister bidding farewell to his congregation. The evening passes with questions about whether it is a sin for a church to be used as a brewery, peppered with several dissents from those who have lost a family farm or their livelihood recently.
The two young teens who texted their way through most of the evening sit at a corner table near the kitchen.
She and her husband never showed.
At ten minutes to closing, Jake rings a bell that sounds more like a siren, and shouts out over the heads of this evening’s remaining congregation, “Last call, everyone! Last call.”
I make mine a Fallen Apple from Furthermore.
[Editor’s Note: We are now accepting short fiction for publication on our pages. Interested?]
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