John woke to a flare-up of rheumatoid and the smell of Irene’s homemade cinnamon rolls. His wife’s kindness didn’t go unnoticed. He tugged shoes over swollen feet and discovered his left pinkie was stiff, the joint frozen. It wasn’t the first time. He taped the pinkie to his ring finger, which made driving easier.
At church, John hunched in a pew. Retired from long-haul trucking, he had more time to return to places that mattered, places like this one – Our Lady of Sorrows. His back throbbed. He had escaped a legacy of poverty but not joint problems.
“Once…twice…sold to number 36, the woman in blue,” said the auctioneer.
John twiddled his auction paddle. German immigrants built Our Lady of Sorrows over a hundred years ago. Farmers who had worked themselves to early graves. Ma had done the same. He imagined a wrecking ball pulverizing the church. Our Lady of Sorrows buried, like Ma.
Valuables stripped and numbered for auction lay in random piles. John overlooked the plaster statues, glanced beyond the panels of plywood nailed over window frames where light once shimmered through prismatic glass. His right hand traveled across the worn, hard surface of the seat. Stroking the oak grain, John traced back to his youth to a time when Our Lady of Sorrows, stifled by incense and Latin, embodied mystery, and when Catholic tradition, rigid and unforgiving, embraced misery over mercy.
“The Klein family wants their pew. You’ll have to move,” said the usher to John and his mother, who sat near the altar, just before the start of mass.
Ma didn’t argue. Squeezing John’s hand, she pulled him out of the pew, and together they walked down the aisle. Everyone stared. Some shook their heads the way Sister Michael Ann had scolded, the curtain of her headpiece fluttering. No one gave up their seat for him and Ma, so pregnant she couldn’t button her coat. The family hadn’t the money to rent use of a pew. John and Ma stood in the back of the church, exposed.
John likened the experience to his first time watching Grandpa catch and yank a trout from Miller’s Creek. Grandpa stunned the fish by a blow to the head with a pipe. He slit the iridescent belly and gutted it. His blood-slick hands glistened. The trout’s heart, exposed, beating on the sun-bleached wooden table. John reaching down, laying a finger on the heart. Waiting until it stopped twitching.
John’s heart thrummed now; the festered wound of his soul lacerated, raw. The auctioneer rattled on, and a few more buyers entered the church.
“Number 72, front row pew, hand-carved.” said the auctioneer. “Bidding starts at one-fifty.”
Gripping the auction paddle, John straightened. He reached the paddle high, his right shoulder burned, angry to stretch so far.
“One-fifty. Do I see two-hundred?”
Karl Klein, perched in the front, raised his paddle with lackadaisical ease.
“Two-hundred. Two-fifty, do I see two-fifty?”
John’s fingers clenched, lifting higher, his arm quivered.
The auctioneer peered over the top of his horn-rimmed readers; black tape secured the left temple. He surveyed the crowd. “Two-fifty going once…twice…sold to number 11 in the far corner.”
Once home, John headed for the garage. He wedged an ax tight into a vise and began filing the blade. Ever since hearing about the auction, he’d dreamt of pews and money, Ma and fire. He dreamt of buying every goddamn pew at Our Lady of Sorrows. He’d build a bonfire fueled by pews, flames rising high enough to lick heaven’s door. What would God say then? Would Ma be watching from above? He worked the file against the blade with precision. Thanks to his neighbor’s help, the pew waited in the back yard. Old twigs filled the stone-rimmed fire pit. A few sparks would ignite a blaze. John loosened the vise clamp and noticed the tape unraveling around his pinkie. He held the ax. The metal edge gleamed. A reminder of Grandpa’s gnarly, stout fingers gripping the fillet knife, the glint of silver catching the sunlight as he sliced the trout’s belly.
“John, what’re you doing in there?” said Irene.
John swirled around. The ax handle banged into the shop table. A tremor of pain shot up his right arm, jabbing his shoulder.
“Come out and take a load off,” she said.
Irene rested on the pew, a plate of cinnamon rolls balanced on her lap. Behind, sugar maples lined the yard. Branches swayed in the breeze forming a backdrop of burnt-orange and yellow leaves, like a brilliant stain-glassed window, glistening, pristine. Irene swept strands of bobbed hair. Face unveiled, her eyes smiled. John’s heart jumped.
Clutching the ax, John took a seat next to Irene. She extended the plate. John shook his head. She pinched off a morsel of a roll and popped it into her mouth.
“Nice of you to buy this old pew,” said Irene.
The fingers of her right hand inched up the pew arm, outlining the carvings.
“I remember how your Ma always sat in the front row. Kneeling on the floor no matter how bad her bones ached. Remember that?”
Seventy years, John thought, as he watched a red-winged blackbird swoop down and land atop the twigs, a long time to try and make sense of life, God and why brook trout congregated in the coldest water. After Our Lady of Sorrows had abandoned pew rental, Ma sat in this very pew, the one without kneelers, her stooped form displayed to all. Close enough to hear the snap of the brittle wafer as the priest, hands lifted, consecrated the host. John trembled, loosened his grasp of the ax and let go. He snaked an arm around Irene. The back of his hand brushed her neck, the warmth of her body soothed. She slid close, leaning her head on his shoulder.
John asked, “Where would you like the pew? The back porch or the foyer?”
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