Lori Hahnel

Beware of God

The crowd in the bookstore comforted me somehow. Comforted or numbed; either way, it worked. I’d only just started to be able to go places again and hadn’t been in a bookstore in a long time. The experience, amazingly, was much the same as before: browsers still stood in silence among the shelves you could disappear behind, the shelves that could swallow you up; staff still pushed trucks of new stock around, shelving discreetly between customers. It was all the same. How could it be so, I wondered, and yet how could it be otherwise? The soft music, the heady aroma of coffee made me almost decide to sit and linger over a cup, relax perhaps, when my eye caught the familiar face of the tall man at the end of the aisle. After a mutual flicker of recognition, I realized it was Bill Howard, my assistant. We’d seen each other, and now we must chat for a moment, no way out of it. He smiled, briefly, timorously, the tight, forced smile of a man who does not really feel like smiling at all.

“Hello, Marian.”

“How’ve you been?”

“I’m well. I’m well. We’ve missed you.”

The auburn haired, freckled woman some ways behind him was his wife, I remembered, whom I’d met at Christmas parties and such several times over the years. What was her name? I’d never think of it right now. But she was with him, just as I’d feared, and she wheeled the stroller up behind him.

“Marian, do you remember Janis? And this is our daughter, Kayla.”

Kayla looked to be a year old or so. Oblivious to her parents and me, she squealed and wriggled, getting her chubby, sticky hands all over a display of Robert Ludlum© paperbacks. Then I found I couldn’t look at her anymore, and looked back at her mother. But I could tell by the way Janis averted her eyes, nearly winced when I looked at her, that the blurring and the stinging heat of my approaching tears were no longer secret. I looked away, too.

Somehow the conversation finished, I don’t remember how. It was just meaningless obligatory chit-chat, all parties involved relieved when it was over, particularly Kayla. I found the washroom and checked myself in the mirror, surprised at how composed I looked. Mascara not running, nose and eyes not red. Only a hard glitter to the eyes that might give me away. That and maybe a certain long-standing, habitual set of the jaw.

There’s got to be someone to blame, and I’m still firmly mired in the blaming stage, so I blame Russ. Or maybe I should blame his mother. Actually, they can share the blame: he’s to blame because he’s the one who insisted on the whole church business in the first place, and she’s to blame because she’s the one who guilted him into it. Pair of hypocrites, the both of them. She’s about as Christian as Attila the Hun, as far as I can see. And the only time Russ ever thought about religion before that was at funerals. Even then, he used to snarl about the stupidity of it all for days afterwards. So you can imagine my surprise when he started making noises, one Sunday morning, about us starting to go to church. Naturally, I thought he was kidding, so I just played along.

“Okay. Which one? Why don’t we go to the Church of God over on forty-fifth? Church of God, like there’s some other kind of church.”

“I meant St. Barnabas.”

“Sure, but why limit ourselves? We could hit them one week, the Catholics the next --”

“Marian. I’m serious.”

I put my crossword puzzle down, looked at him over my reading glasses, wondering for a brief, terrifying moment if he’d had some brush with mortality. He had just been for a checkup a couple of weeks earlier. Maybe they’d found something he hadn’t told me about yet. Or maybe it was mid-life crisis, or andropause, whatever they were calling it these days, that had my husband in its grip.

“What’s wrong?”

“There’s nothing wrong. It’s just that Mom’s getting on. You know she hasn’t been so well lately.”

Russ’s mother had been dying since approximately the day I met her, in 1971; there was always some immediate threat to her health at hand. I do believe it was her very ill health that kept her going, for I was sure she hadn’t much else to live for. Well, ill health and haranguing Russ. “How exactly is our going to church going to improve things for her?”

“It would just make her feel better, is all. She worries. Not about us so much, more about Jennifer.”

Jennifer. Suddenly, the lightbulb came on. “It’s the sign, isn’t it?”

“No. Well, actually it did get me to thinking about it a little, I guess.”

A couple of years earlier, Jennifer had hung a sign on the outside of her bedroom door, the kind you get in hardware stores with fluorescent orange letters on a black background, that read, “NO TRESPASSING”. Recently, she’d replaced it with one that said “BEWARE OF DOG”, only she’d cut out the letters in the last word and reversed them. I thought it was kind of funny, but I didn’t really think much about it. As far as I knew, Russ’s mother hadn’t seen it, but apparently it worried him.

“I don’t think it means our daughter has become a Satanist. She just has a fondness for wordplay. Anyway, good luck getting her out of bed anytime before noon on a Sunday. As for me, I see no reason to spend my Sunday mornings in an institution that I have listened to you sputter on disparagingly about for years, for the sole purpose of making your mother happy.”

“I just thought, you know, she might not be around much longer, and it would be such a small effort on our parts…”

He stroked his greying brown beard as he spoke, and I knew that meant he was nervous. The poor dear. She’d really socked it to him. I wanted to tell him, though I never could, that it wasn’t so much us going to church that would make the old so-and-so happy, it would be the simple act of submission to her will that would satisfy her.

“We could just tell her we’ve been going. To a different church, of course, not St. Barnabas, otherwise she’d know.”

“We could not do that.”

“Why not? They don’t take attendance, do they?”

“If you’re going to be sarcastic, I don’t think there’s any point in having this conversation.”

“Look, I’m sorry. But come on. The man who’s been rejecting organized religion as superstitious nonsense as long as I’ve known him is all of a sudden telling me he’s found God? I mean, the first thing that came to my mind was that you must be joking.”

“I didn’t say I’d found God. I just said it would make my mother happy in the last part of her life if we showed up at church now and again. And it’s not a joke.”

Turns out the joke was on me. We were in St. Barnabas the next Sunday.

Just because Russ and I were going didn’t mean Jennifer would, though, as I suspected. I thought she’d laugh, react more or less the way I had when her father told her we were going to church. Russ was annoyed by her complete lack of interest in the matter. I saw him glaring, as he tried to argue with her, at her blue-black lawnmower-cut hair, her piercings, her clothes, all topics of dispute between them in the past. She shrugged and said she’d rather go and visit Oma than go to church to make her happy, and suddenly the discussion was over. Now there was an answer. How could this wise, calm creature be a child of mine, I wondered as I watched her descend the basement stairs to her bedroom.

“She spends an awful lot of time in her room,” Russ muttered.

“She does. I suppose you didn’t when you were a kid.”

“I don’t think I was in my room that much. Whenever she’s at home she’s down there, listening to that God-awful music she’s into, all about death and despair. The only times I ever see her are at meals. And not even all the time then.”

“Maybe you think she should be up here digging the Grateful Dead with us or something. At her age she’d rather be on the phone with her friends than hanging with her parents. Most kids her age would rather be doing anything else but hanging with their parents. I know I was that way.”

Since I’ve been off work I’ve managed for the most part to avoid people, people outside the family and close friends. I think particularly of some of my co-workers, and I’m afraid they’ll ask questions. Frankly, I’m in no shape to talk about it. Not that most decent people would ask, I’m sure. But you never know, and I’m just not willing to take that risk yet, even though I suppose they’ve probably all heard it by now. Bill has, of course. I’m sure they all know. Still, right now I can’t risk getting into a situation where I’d have to go into it to any degree. Most days it’s hard enough to talk to Russ or his mother about it; talking to people outside the family, I break down. So the only thing I’ve arrived at is avoidance. It’s not much of a coping strategy, but it’s all I’ve got.

We started attending services at St. Barnabas, as I said. Regular church attendance hadn’t been part of my life since my early teens. But I found the standing, the sitting, the kneeling, all at the same prescribed times, the singing, even the words, were almost identical in the Anglican services and the Masses of my girlhood. To think people had fought and died over the differences, the ridiculous little differences.

Russ told me I didn’t have to come with him if I didn’t want to. I would have loved to stay home with my tea and my slippers and my paper, but I just couldn’t do it. It was bad enough listening to him making excuses to his mother for Jennifer: she had a bad cold, she had an essay to turn in the next day, she was studying for finals. I didn’t have the heart to think of him trying to dream up alibis for me, too. And he would have, he could never just tell his mother that Jennifer and I weren’t there because we just weren’t into the organized religion thing at all, and neither was he for that matter. Much as I would have loved to hear him say it, much as I would have liked to see her mouth purse up and her moony little face turn red.

I went with him, but that was as far as I was willing to go. I was not going to be a party to nagging Jennifer to come. He tried to get me onside once, at dinner.

“Jennifer is seventeen,” I answered. “I think she’s old enough to decide whether she wants to go to church or not, don’t you?”

He was touchy the rest of the evening. Maybe that wasn’t the answer he wanted to hear, but it was the truth. People should get used to listening to the truth, I thought, instead of pressuring other people to say and do what they wanted them to. Because eventually the truth will out, or at least you hope so. Because you get so damn tired of listening to these little white lies designed to spare people’s feelings, or whatever it is they’re supposed to accomplish. After a while, though, Russ’s mom did stop asking why Jennifer wasn’t there, like she figured it out, or finally decided it wasn’t worth wasting any more of her nagging power on.

One Sunday a couple of months later, we returned from church for what turned out to be the last time. We changed out of what had become our church clothes, and I asked Russ to go downstairs to ask Jennifer what she wanted for lunch. I stood peering into the fridge, trying to decide whether to heat up last night’s lentil soup or make sandwiches when he came bounding up the stairs. He stood looking at me, not saying anything, breathing very hard from the unaccustomed effort of running. He was looking at me, yet he was looking at nothing, or at something far off, or at something he still saw in his eyes that wouldn’t go away.

I was afraid to ask him what was wrong.

We had no idea. Well, looking back, it seems Russ did have an inkling. But not me. I had no clue that our daughter was depressed. She’d always been the serious type, quiet. And she did spend a lot of time in her room, on phone. Didn’t all teenagers? How could something like this strike your family completely unawares? In those first few weeks after it happened, I kept saying, “If only we’d been home, she never would have done it.” Not realizing, in my grief, how little sense that made.

What remains now is the thing everyone thinks but no one articulates. The elephant in the room, so obvious, taking up all the space and crushing the furniture, but no one talks about it. No one has to. I think it all the time, and I hate myself for thinking it, but I can’t help thinking it: this is worse than death. Seeing her lying in this bed, unresponsive, unseeing, caught in a snarl of tubing and gauges, I think it’s not really Jennifer. The antiseptic smell, the metallic smell of blood, so foreign at first, yet something I now encounter every day, associate now with her. So strange.

I think that, and then sometimes I want to slap myself for thinking it. Because this is Jennifer, this is Jennifer, something inside me screams. The real Jennifer. Not the Jennifer I thought I knew, not the Jennifer who was yakking on the phone about cute boys or whatever it was I figured she was yakking about. I guess the thing was I had no idea what she was talking about, what she was thinking about, who she really was. But this is who she is now, and I can no longer defend not seeing her clearly.

Now it’s all clear enough.

Lori Hahnel's short fiction, nominated for the Journey Prize in 2002, has appeared in The Amethyst Review, lichen literary journal, Forum, C/Oasis and Tickled by Thunder’s 2002 Best Fiction Anthology. She is currently marketing her first novel. Hahnel's reviews and essays have appeared in numerous journals including Books in Canada, Canadian Author and West Word.



HomeContributor Bios

© 2003-2004 Plum Ruby Review. All rights reserved.