home : book reviews : The Age of Wire and String by Ben Marcus

The Minister’s Son

A short story by John Gardiner

When he was sixty-five, he decided to move home. He moved back to the place where he’d been born and come of age. His return might well have been ignominious for it was carried out in the dead of night when he disembarked a Greyhound at a deserted, closed-up greasy spoon that had also been there when he was a mere boy. And all it took was a Greyhound to carry his entire life back to where it had begun. He’d no family; had never married — afraid of girls — that’s what they used to say about him when he was kid. Had worked nearly his whole adult life tending bar at a joint out on the west coast, where he’d finally come to rest after a few years following high school spent browsing more respectable professions, which he’d decided were not for him. He’d lived in a room over the bar for all those years and had accumulated little, so there was little to bring with him on this homecoming.

The bar had closed last month, its friendly, lazy atmosphere finally overwhelmed by the slick polish of the new age. It hadn’t really closed, but rather was replaced by a more modern, up-to-date beverage dispensary that was better suited to the new crowd of Porsches and Jaguars who had decided that old beat-up industrial properties were to become the latest rage in studio living. He’d actually been offered a job in the new bar, which he thought was a nice gesture, but he’d turned it down quick as a wink, knowing he’d not fit into such an establishment.

All of the old regulars had been dispersed and turned out into the street to find a new drinking establishment, but he’d not gone with them. He’d sat up late into the night after his last shift in the bar, and he’d wondered what he might do. The new company that had bought the tired, old drinking establishment where he’d worked had made him a most generous settlement when he’d told them he wouldn’t take them up on their offer of a job. It was more money than he’d seen in his life, and, added to what he’d saved over his years of frugal living, he had quite a nest egg. He’d just turned sixty-five the Christmas before. Why not? he’d thought. He should retire back to his old home town — to a place he’d not seen for all of forty-five years.

His father had been a minister and the good reverend and his young bride had moved to the community right from their wedding, and had spent the next twenty years there, raising he and his sister, before moving back to where their own home had been, as people often do as they grow older. His sister had moved to another faraway city, so he no longer had any family connections to his birthplace, but it was the only place he’d thought of as home as he’d travelled through life’s journey. And those thoughts had become stronger and stronger as he’d gotten older, almost as if he was drawn back and could go no other place. He could remember incredible feelings of comfortableness during his growing-up years, and he wanted them back. So, even though he had not come this way for some considerable length of time, it seemed the only recourse for his so-called golden years.

When he disembarked the bus, he stood alone on the street. To his knowledge, he knew no one in the community, other than perhaps a few grey souls left over from when he’d been a boy, and he’d not kept in touch with anyone from that era, so it could not really be said that he knew even them, if they should exist. He found himself a hotel fairly easily, on the recommendation of the bus driver. It was some two blocks distant from where he was dropped by the bus, so he gathered up his life’s possessions, two pieces of somewhat battered luggage, and tottered off up the main street of the place he’d seen only in his dreams for all these many years.

And even as he walked, he could feel eerie sentiment rising to fill him, and he began to wonder what might have happened to the many people he had known as a boy. And to put it truthfully, he had seldom wondered during his years away — had always been the steppenwolf, the loner, even when he’d been young. He’d not made close friendsback in that other life, but had existed sort of on the perimetre of his youthful society. But there had been many acquaintances from that time, and he retained many mostly fond memories of those coming of age years. And it was those memories that came back to him now as he walked in the same place he’d walked as a boy. He wondered if there was anyone here to remember him.

Finally, he came upon the hotel, which was a landmark from his boyhood days, although it was much changed on the outside and he wasn’t sure he would have found it without the driver’s directions. So, he took a room for a week, which he paid in advance, and he settled in for the night. It was an odd feeling to be back. As he lay under the covers in the hotel room, and even though he had spent much of his life alone, it was the first time he could remember feeling truly alone. He felt small and vulnerable as he laid in the bed. Perhaps this had been a mistake, he thought, as he drifted off to sleep.

He’d always missed the mornings. Because of his job at the bar, where he had usually worked into the depths of night, he’d not seen many mornings. He remembered them from when he was a kid. He’d had an early morning paper route one summer vacation, and he still remembered gathering with the other paper boys at an extremely early hour, the mist rising off the wet, green lawns, the sun lighting up the world, but not yet rising above the rooftops to where it would spread its warmth over the day. It was a strange, shivering time of day, but it was also fresh and new and it seemed anything was possible.

So, he had resolved that if he ever left the bartending business, and could restore his life to some semblance of a normal schedule, that he would again become an early riser. That was why an alarm clock awakened him at an extremely early hour that first morning in the hotel. He grumbled to himself as he stumbled around in the queer half-light of the room, but once he’d made it as far as the shower, there was no turning back.

He felt good as he broke out through the front door of his accommodation onto the sidewalk of the town’s main street, the uneasy loneliness of the previous night all but forgotten. He’d forsake breakfast at this early hour and focus instead on a brisk walk throughout as much of the community as he could comfortably cover before he could forsake no longer, and would then locate an appropriate eatery for sustenance.

It was odd to have been away for so long. He found the physical character of the town essentially unchanged as he walked along the main thoroughfare, but there were few storefront names he remembered from the days of his youth. Most of the people who had owned those storefronts when he’d been a lad would be long since departed from this earth, replaced by succeeding generations of merchants intent on parting customers from their dollars. Still, a few familiar names remained. A bake shop reminded him of the honey dip donuts he’d eaten as a young boy. And there was a shoe store where his Dad had bought him his back to school footwear for years on end. The names the same; no doubt the faces somewhat changed.

But, as the days passed, he developed a feel for the lay of the land, and although his suspicions were confirmed, and he met no one who hailed him as a long, lost friend, he found people generally friendly and cordial as he went about his business. And that involved finding somewhere a little more permanent to live because he couldn’t stay at the hotel forever.

And it could be said that he made no active effort to discover if there could be holdovers about from that other era, as he went about the task of finding a new home where he might relax and spend his remaining years doing crosswords and perhaps playing euchre with other aged cronies at a seniors’ centre. He knew there must be some who had known him, because not all would have moved away, and not all would have perished by this relatively young age. But he reasoned that none would remember such an unspectacular youth as he had been. He had been nothing but the ordinary.

He found a small house that was close to where he’d lived as a kid. He’d actually been looking for an apartment, but saw the house, and couldn’t resist after taking a look at it. He bought the place, looking at it as an investment in property, something he’d not done in his whole life, and was soon about painting and fixing and putting his own personal stamp on the place. He wasn’t sure he was doing anything right, but it was like he became possessed with the spirit of home ownership, and he truthfully enjoyed getting up in the morning, at his usual very early hour, to have his tea and toast in the breakfast nook he’d painted and decorated himself.

One day, as he was puttering about in the back yard, trying to figure out if he should attempt vegetable gardening for the first time in several decades, somebody came in through the gate from the driveway.

"Hi there," said a woman’s voice.

He looked up to see the greeter.

"Hi," she repeated. "I’ve been watching you get moved in. I should have been over sooner, but I’ve just been so busy. I live across the street." The words poured from her without a response from him.

She was a young woman, but didn’t they all seem to be when you were his age, and he would have said she wasn’t too hard on the eyes; that is if he’d been with the guys down at the bar and she’d inadvertently invaded their world looking for something to wet her whistle. Instead, he found he couldn’t help but return her smile.

"That’s better," she said, acknowledging his gesture. "For a minute there I thought I’d made a mistake by bothering you."

"No," he said, speaking his first word. "I’m glad for a little company," he added, trying to offer reassurance that she was indeed welcome.

"You planning on doing a little building?" the young woman asked, and it was true that he was standing holding a tape measure.

"No," he answered, "I’m wondering whether I should put a garden in back here."

"You like gardening?" she asked.

"I have to admit that I’ve never really tried it," he answered.

"Really," she said, seeming somewhat surprised by this information.

They stood in silence for a moment. He fondled the tape measure and looked awkwardly at the ground, shifting from foot to foot; the way he always did when he ran out of small talk — and particularly when he was with a member of the opposite sex and he ran out of small talk. It wasn’t like you could just talk hockey.

"Anyway," the young woman finally started, interrupting the stiff quiet that had come over the place, "it was really my mother who sent me over to see you. We’re having a barbeque tomorrow and most of the other neighbours are coming. We’d like you to come. It would be a good chance for you to get to meet some of your other neighbours — they’re a pretty good bunch around here."

"Gosh," he answered, not really sure what else to say, knowing that he sounded silly, but overwhelmed to have been invited to such an event after having lived here for such a short time. He considered it an act of great kindness.

"Please come," she said. "The others will be coming about two — it’s the house with the bright, yellow mailbox, just across the road — you can’t miss it."

"I’d be honoured," he finally managed. "Should I bring something?"

"Just yourself," she answered, punctuating the reply with another of her infectious smiles.

He answered with another of his own.

And, as quickly as that, she was gone and he was left alone in the back yard of his new house to contemplate this latest development in his life. He hadn’t attended many social functions in his lifetime, except those where he’d been the bartender. And there had been many of those, because his cronies from the bar had families, and over the years there’d been weddings and funerals and birthdays and all manner of occasions to be celebrated — even one Bar Mitzpah — and he had usually been the bartender of choice. So, while he had attended many social functions, he’d had plenty to occupy his time and hadn’t really done much actual mixing or socializing. In fact, he’d avoided occasions where he might be forced to mix or socialize. They made him feel uncomfortable. So, he’d always avoided them.

But now there was this party and he supposed he should go. It would be the sociable thing to do. If he didn’t go, the word would be out that he was a reclusive hermit who ate little children. He knew how these things worked in small towns. He’d made the choice to move back here, and he’d known that would involve meeting new people and possibly having to endure some potentially unpleasant situations. This might well be one of them — but he still supposed that he should go.

And it wouldn’t be right to say that he actually lost sleep worrying about having to attend the party. At least, he refused to accept that as the reason for an unusually restless night, when he struggled out of bed in the early morning hours for his walk. It was work on this morning and he had difficulty appreciating the beauty of the moment. But he finished it just the same. Returned to the house, showered, had a bite to eat, and settled in to wait for party time.

It was a reasonably sedate little gathering that he came upon at the neighbourhood party. The young woman who’d invited him answered the door after he rang the bell, and he soon found himself standing on a backyard patio, just off by himself, drink in hand, while others around him talked and visited with each other. He felt much like he always did when he attended such events — like the proverbial fish out of water. He’d only come because he thought he might offend the young woman who’d extended the invitation, but he’d not seen her since she’d admitted him to the place. He guessed she’d not have noticed if he’d stayed home.

He was lost in his thoughts, off by himself in more than body, when a voice interrupted his thinking.

"You must be our new neighbour," said a woman’s voice.

He turned and regarded the attractive, older woman who’d offered the comment. He smiled as an acknowledgement, but said nothing. Still, when he met her eyes for the first time, he felt his heart flutter ever so slightly. He looked away, regarded the well-manicured grass instead.

"Susan said you were quiet when she was over yesterday," the woman said.

"I find it’s best unless you have something worthwhile to say," he answered, immediately surprised that he would put into words what would normally be kept as a thought, while a polite pleasantry was exhaled instead. He continued to look away.

"I think that’s a wise thought," she said. A momentary pause. "You moved from the West Coast?" she asked.

"Yes," he answered, but with no offer of further information, shifting slightly from one foot to the other.

"Retired?" she asked.

"Yes," he answered, again rather abruptly.

There was another pause.

"I’m making you feel uncomfortable," she said with an apologetic tone to her voice.

"No," he answered, possibly lying, but knowing he didn’t want her to break off the exchange. "It’s just that I’m not very good at these types of things," he stammered somewhat nervously, again surprised by his words, not usually willing to offer such personal details to other people, even friends, let alone a complete stranger.

"But you came," the woman said.

"Yes," he answered, looking somewhat sheepishly back at her for the first time since the beginning of their rendezvous. "I thought it would be rude to turn down the invitation when I was new here. I thought everybody would think I was a snob or something."

"Well, we’re a friendly bunch," she said, smiling warmly. "We don’t bite and we all get along great. We have one of these get togethers about once a month."

"Oh, I think it is great," he said. "But I’m not used to doing this kind of socializing where you just stand around with a drink in your hand talking to people."

"What are you used to doing?" she asked.

"I’m a bartender," he answered. "I’m used to setting up drinks."

"Really," she answered. "It’s hard to believe you’re a bartender. I thought you had to be a real talker."

"Mostly, you have to be a good listener," he answered. "People like to talk to a bartender."

And it was just at that moment that the young woman who’d invited him to the party approached them, walking rather quickly.

"Mother, you’ve met our new neighbour," she said. "I hate to drag you away, but I need a little help in the kitchen if you don’t mind — and it’s sort of an emergency." She took the older woman’s arm.

"Okay, okay," the mother said, as she was gently pulled in the direction of the house and away from him. But she pulled herself away from her insistent daughter for just a minute and turned back toward him. "Don’t go away," she said to him. "Susan told me you were thinking of putting in a garden. It’s a passion of mine — gardening, that is. I’d love to show you my garden, if you can wait ’til I deal with this latest emergency in my daughter’s life."

"I’d be honoured," he answered. And he watched as she disappeared into the house, now leading the way.

He got himself another drink as he waited for her to return. And he wasn’t sure if it was a result of the first drink, or if the woman’s visit had made the difference, but he found that he was loosened up somewhat from earlier and was actually able to engage in some minor dialogue concerning the weather on the West Coast with a man who seemed a little too tipsy for this early in the day.

Generally, though, he stood quietly and waited. And he found that he was filled with some sense of anticipation as he did so. She was an attractive woman, and although he had long ago chosen not to marry or involve himself in affairs of the heart, he remained thoroughly male so that he was not unmoved by her and others of her kind. And there had been an occasional other rendezvous over the years, and he had settled his affairs of the heart with an occasional woman of the night. He was not completely ignorant of the ways of the world.

Finally, he saw her re-appear at the patio door, turning, perhaps to offer some last minute instruction, discarding an apron she’d tied on for the stint in the kitchen. She walked back across the lawn, smiling.

"Welcome back," he greeted her.

"Come on," she replied. "Come and let me show you my garden." She took him by the arm and they walked off across the lawn toward the rear of the property and away from where the other guests were congregated.

He was in his glory as she walked him through the rows of vegetables. He asked polite questions from time to time, but it seemed she could hold court forever on her beloved garden, and she became even more animated when they left the vegetable garden and she started showing off her flowers. She seemed in full radiant bloom herself as she explained this or that about her horticultural pursuits.

Finally, though, the tour was at an apparent end. They finished at the gazebo and ended up sitting in quiet.

"Why did you move here?" the woman asked, as they sat. "Why this particular town?"

"I’m from here," he answered. "I grew up here."

She regarded him, but said nothing.

"It was a long time ago," he said.

"What era?" she asked.

"Oh, back about 45 years ago, I was just finishing high school," he answered. He told her about his father, the minister, and how he’d ministered to the flock over at Trinity United for about twenty years while his family grew.

"Did you keep in touch with anybody?" she asked.

"No, I’m not really a keeping in touch kind of guy," he answered. "I just sort of drifted after high school, tried out a couple of jobs and ended up out on the West Coast tending bar."

There was a silence.

"You know," she started, "I don’t even know your name. That was rude of me. I’m Barbara Humel." She extended a hand to him.

He took her hand and offered his own monicker up for inspection.

"I don’t remember you," the woman said. "I’m a little younger than you, I think. But I’m sure I remember your family name from years ago."

"I’m sure there are still a few people around who’d remember my father," he answered. "But I was kind of a low profile guy — I didn’t really have any close friends."

Just then the daughter’s voice sounded out. "Well, it looks like you two have found a nice secluded spot," she said, as she approached. "Mother, we were missing you. After all, it’s your party."

"Oh, I suppose you’re right, Susan," the mother answered, "but I was having a rather good time sitting here in the gazebo. It was very peaceful."

The two of them got to their feet and stepped back out into the yard.

"I should be going," he suddenly said.

"Oh, are you sure?" asked the older woman, and she honestly seemed to care.

"Yes," he answered. "I want to get a few things done yet today."

"Well, it’s been a pleasure," she said, turning to face him. "I hope we have a chance to talk again some time."

"That would be nice," he answered.

And while the mother and daughter headed back toward the party, he excused himself out through a gate at the side of the house. But he was smiling as he went.

He found himself in good humour for several days after the meeting with Barbara Humel. He putzed around a considerable amount in his front yard, hoping to catch as much as a glimpse of her. But to no avail. He saw nothing of her.

It was about this time, after he’d been in town for about two months, and settled into his house for a month, that he actually ventured uptown into the so called seniors’ centre. He’d been past it, known its location since his first couple of days in town. But he’d not gone to the place before, keeping mostly to himself while he got used to the town.

He’d been spending a lot of time alone, which was not unusual for him, but one morning he got up and decided he needed a little human company. So, after his early morning walk, he showered and shaved and put on some respectable clothes and headed uptown. He was a little nervous. Not sure what might transpire. But he had decided he should make the best of it.

He went into the place and ordered a tea at the lunch counter, then found himself a table and settled in to watch the happenings. A group of older men were gathered around a pool table, cues in hand, sizing up the game as it unfolded before them. There were a couple of tables of cards going on just over from him; a mix of men and women, all seemingly intent on the job at hand. So, he sat in solitude, and although he had come to perhaps meet some of the townsfolk, he was uncertain how to accomplish this, short of just walking up to someone and trying to strike up a conversation — and that was something he wasn’t sure he could do. He suddenly felt stupid. Why had he come? He felt others were watching him, wondering about the stranger in their midst.

It was just then that a familiar face appeared. Barbara Humel came into the room. He felt his spirits lift as soon as she entered. She’d see him. He almost wanted to get to his feet to go to her, but he sat fondling his tea and watched as she talked to another couple of women and then went through a door and out of sight.

His spirits sagged. He awaited her return and hoped she hadn’t left.

Finally, she re-appeared. She went into the lunch counter area and poured herself a coffee. It was only then that she took the time to look about to see who might be in the place. He watched as she looked first to the pool table, and then to the card players. Finally, she found him. He saw her look of recognition and offered her a slight wave, almost as if he was afraid others might see.

She came immediately toward him, causing him to smile by way of greeting.

"Hi there," she said, returning the smile.

"Hello," he answered.

"I haven’t seen you here before," she said.

"This is my first time," he answered.

"Well, welcome," she replied. "Have you met anybody else?"

"No," he answered. "I just got here."

"Well, then, come on," she said, and she took him by the arm and pulled him up out of the chair.

And so he met everybody at the centre that morning, from the cook, to the pool players, to the card players. He felt uncomfortable as they made the rounds, but he toughed it out, remaining sure that he wanted to meet people. He even thought he recognized one old guy’s name and features when he was introduced — possibly someone from his past — but there was no flic ker of recognition on the other’s face.

Barbara ended up depositing him at the pool table, telling a couple of the cue-bearing codgers to take care of him, and see that he felt welcome. He stood awkwardly off to the side of where the game was taking place after she left him , a little embarrassed at being foisted onto the pool players like a child in need of a babysitter.

Finally, the game broke up. One of the other oldtimers came over to him.

"Do you shoot?" the approaching geezer asked, gesturing at the table with his cue.

"Yes," he answered. "I used to play a bit." And it was a bit of an understatement, considering the old bar where he’d worked had contained a regulation size snooker table where he’d whiled away many hours over the years.

He helped rack up the balls and watched as the other senior sent the cue ball skittering down the table, breaking the balls with a loud crack. The game was on.

He took it easy on Sid, the other oldtimer, letting him sink a few balls along the way, but he beat him in the end, still not able to control his little competitive streak even after all these years. After the game, and after they’d decided not to play again, instead letting others use the table, Sid invited him for a coffee.

"Just moved back into town, that what Barbara said?" his pool playing partner asked, as they sat with their coffee.

"Yes," he answered. "From the West Coast."

"You been gone a long time?" Sid asked, his eyebrows perking up.

"About forty-five years," he answered.

"That’s a long time," Sid commented, reflectively stirring his coffee. "I can remember your parents. Your Dad was highly thought of," Sid answered. "But I can’t say I recall you kids — I’m older than you, I think."

"I just turned sixty-five," he confessed.

"You’d be about Bert Howard’s age," Sid answered.

His own eyebrows perked up. "I knew Bert," he said. "We were in the same class a couple of years in high school." It was the first he’d actually heard of someone he knew from the old days.

"It’s a wonder he’s not in here this morning," the other oldtimer remarked. "You haven’t tried to find anybody you knew since you’ve been back?"

"No," he answered. "I didn’t have any really close friends when I was a boy, and I was pretty sure nobody’d remember me. I guess I wasn’t sure what to expect, so I thought I’d keep a low profile for the first while.

"Why did you come back?" Sid asked. "Not meaning to be too personal."

"I’m not really sure," he answered. "It seemed as good a place as any to retire. I guess I remember being happy here as a boy."

"You’re an odd duck," the oldtimer remarked.

"I’ve been called worse," he answered.

And he spent the rest of the morning with his newfound friend, and they discussed this and that and the other thing, and he told Sid about the bar where he’d worked and its subsequent demise in the name of progress, to which the other oldtimer remarked, "Ain’t that always the way".

He also obtained his first information on what had become of some of his former acquaintances from back when he’d been a boy. There were a few still stalking the town, including Bert Howard, and he resolved that he’d seek them out, if they didn’t find him in this place first, because several apparently frequented the centre.

And he also heard the story of Barbara Humel, of how her husband had died ten years past, and how she had been alone since. She was very involved in the community, helping a multitude of organizations along the way, filling her time with various charitable acts. But everybody knew she needed a man. That’s what Sid said. She was far too young to be on her own. That’s what Sid said.

And it was about that time that Sid’s wife came along to collect him for lunch. And he parted company with the other oldtimer, but only after promising to come again the next morning to play partners in the weekly eight-ball tournament.

And so he finally left the seniors’ centre, feeling somewhat contented with himself for seeming to have made a new friend. He would return — hopefully often.

He was walking home, glad for the small town where he was able to walk to most destinations., and had started up his block, when he observed a curious sight. It was Barbara Humel, changed from the proper clothes he’d seen her in earlier at the centre, now clad in her gardening attire, shovel in hand, wrestling with a shrub she had half dug out of its place in the garden in front of her house. He watched as she plunged the spade back into the ground, apparently attacking the root system of the hapless bush. She punished it vigourously, wrenching the shovel back and forth with gusto, then pulling it back and retreating a couple of steps to wipe her brow.

He veered off from his intended destination of home and turned up her front walk. He approached just as she was set to do battle again.

"Hi!" he called out.

She stopped abruptly, and turned back toward him. She offered him a smile of recognition. "Well, hello," she said. "I must look a sight." She ran the back of her hand across her forehead, and made to straighten a bandana that hid her hair.

"That’s quite a job," he commented, indicating the partly extracted shrub.

"Oh, I’ve wanted to move this thing for years," she said, "and today seemed like a good day."

"I could offer some help," he suggested.

"I couldn’t ask you to do that," she said. "I got myself into this and I should get myself out."

"I think I’ve got an idea that could save you a lot of work," he said.

"Really," she said.

"Yes," he answered, "if you’ve got some rope, and a couple of other things."

"I think there’s some rope in the garage, and I’ve got lots of "things"," she said.

"You show me where and I’ll see what I can do," he replied.

And it wasn’t long and he had fashioned a primitive winch, something he hadn’t been exactly sure he could do, but had decided to attempt nevertheless, and the shrub was at his mercy. It was an easy task to finish the job of pulling it from the ground, although he was careful to keep loosening it with the shovel so he could save as much of the root system as possible, knowing she wanted to re-plant it somewhere else.

She watched from the front steps as he went about his work. Finally, the bush popped from its place in the ground. He looked over at her, beaming.

"Very impressive," she said, offering him a round of applause and a smile for his efforts.

He bowed low in mock salute. "Glad to be of service, ma’am," he said, returning her smile.

"That really was very impressive," she said. "You have a very mechanical nature."

"That’s what Mr. Hodgins, my old shop teacher, used to tell me," he said.

"But you were a bartender," she said.

"But I could sure fix a good drink," he said with a sly grin.

She erupted in laughter at what he thought was a rather bad joke. He laughed as well, but was more subdued, instead regarding Barbara Humel. He felt a warmth flush over him just at the sight of her. She seemed fresh and alive and invigorating. He breathed her in and it was like she made him whole for the first time in his life. He wanted to giggle and then laugh out loud at the sheer joy and immense contentment he felt just to be with her on the front step of her house.

It was a feeling he could not remember from his life. Girls, and then women, had always terrified him. He really was afraid of girls, just like they’d joked back all those years ago when he’d been a kid. And it was something he’d never outgrown. Whenever he got into close conversation with a member of the opposite sex, his wits deserted him, leaving him to fend for himself, while his palms got totally sweaty, and his knees rattled against each other. He’d long ago learned to avoid such close conversations, and, perhaps, as a result, had spent nearly a lifetime alone.

But those feelings didn’t seem to be with him on this particular day with this particular woman.

"Were you just coming from the centre?" she asked, after the laughter had subsided.

"Yes," he answered.

"Well, you probably haven’t had any lunch," she said.

He didn’t answer, not sure what his response should be.

"Come on," she said. "I’ll fix us some lunch. It’s the least I can do after all your trouble."

"I shouldn’t put you to the trouble," he said, knowing full well that he wanted to put her to the trouble; that he wanted nothing more than to stay for lunch.

"It’s no trouble," she answered. "I’ve got to eat, myself."

"Well, alright then," he said. "But I’ll put a few things away out here first."

"Okay," she replied, getting to her feet. "Just come around the back when you’re finished."

He smiled at her as she turned to go. She smiled back, and he felt himself melt away from the warmth it again made him feel.

So, he went in for lunch.

"That was very resourceful of you out there," Barbara said, as she passed him a beautiful looking garden salad.

He helped himself.

"I’d have been at that thing until next Sunday at the rate I was going," she said, passing over a plate of sandwiches. "Tuna salad," she added.

He took a sandwich.

They both sat in quiet.

"Do you say grace?" she asked, folding her hands in front of her.

"Yes," he answered, lying in that he had not said grace once since he had left his father’s house, unless he had been a guest of some other.

"Would you do the honour?" she asked.

He folded his hands and bowed his head. "Please, Jesus, for what we are about to receive, Lord make us truly thankful. Amen." It came so easily and felt so good. He surprised himself that he had even remembered. He looked up, perhaps somewhat cautiously. She offered her now familiar smile. He felt himself flush as he had earlier at the front of the house.

"Do you go to church?" she asked, as they started to eat.

"Well, I haven’t since I’ve been back," he answered truthfully.

"Your father was a United Church minister?" she asked.

"Yes," he answered, between mouthfuls.

"Is that still your church?" she asked.

"Yes, I guess it is," he answered, pausing for a drink.

"You’re probably still on the rolls," she said. "They only strike you off when you die. Moving away for forty years won’t do."

He knew she was joking and offered a small laugh. "Do you go to the United Church?" he asked, turning things about and asking a question of his own.

"Yes," she answered. "Your father baptized and confirmed me."

"Is that so," he replied. "You didn’t say."

"Typical woman," she answered. "Didn’t want to give away my age."

"You could still be quite a bit younger than me," he said.

"But I’m not," she said. "My father was a church elder when your Dad was minister, so I remember him coming to our house for church business. I’m even sure I remember you — sort of — but you’re probably about ten years older than me, so we wouldn’t have paid much attention to each other. Didn’t you sing in church sometimes?"

This time he flushed with embarrassment.

"Got you with that one," she laughed.

"Just keep it to yourself," he said. "I don’t want that getting around."

"Don’t worry," she said, still smiling broadly, "but don’t be surprised if someone else remembers now that we’ve got you out of the closet."

He smiled back. "I guess I shouldn’t be surprised," he said.

"We have long memories in small towns," she said.

They ate for a moment in silence.

"Perhaps we could go together sometime," she said, so quietly he barely heard.

"Pardon?" he asked.

"Maybe we could go to church together sometime — I mean, if you think you might want to," she said.

"That would be a great honour," he answered, not needing so much as a second to reach a decision about a possible return to organized christianity under such circumstances.

And so they finished their lunch, and he could have stayed for the afternoon, and into the evening, but knew it wouldn’t be appropriate with her a single woman with a reputation to uphold, so he politely excused himself, and went home. He was hardly through the front door to his house and he was planning a shopping trip for some new Sunday clothes, knowing he must make a good impression.

And so he made his return. He went home — back to the place where he’d been born and come of age. As he lay that night in his bed, in his own house, across the street from Barbara Humel and across town fron the seniors’ centre, he was glad he’d come back. He no longer felt small and vulnerable and alone. He felt like he belonged. And it was safe to say that he had not harboured such feelings since he had long ago left the bosom of his family home.

It still remained to be seen whether he’d be able to fit into the community, whether he’d be able to sit and reminisce with Bert Howard and any other former acquaintances he might meet, or whether he’d be able to break into the eight-ball crowd with Sid and the other oldtimers. And there was this Barbara Humel thing. He would work hard to resolve that in his favour. He had special feelings for her already. He knew he wanted to attend church, or any other function, with her. He would work on that one.

He felt himself drifting off to sleep… tomorrow would come soon enough… and he was anxious for it to come. There was life to be lived. And for the first time in what seemed like a very long time, he was looking forward to it. He would rise early and walk in the bright, new day. Then, who knew what might happen? Except that it would surely be life. And that was good. So very good.

Copyright © John Gardiner 1997

This article may not be archived or distributed further without the author’s express permission. Please read the license.

This electronic version of The Minister’s Son is published by The Richmond Review by arrangement with the author.

John Gardiner is a 44-year-old former community newspaper editor from Wallaceburg, Ontario, Canada. He can be emailed at <[email protected]> His story Froglegs and Other Peculiar Things is also published in The Richmond Review.


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