The Convert

Fiction, Prose

Fiction by Dani Heinemeyer

+++Judith starts believing in God after watching the History Channel special, “The Real Face  of Jesus.” She sits alone in her living room, the television projecting faint blue holograms onto the coffee table’s mahogany surface.

On the screen, x-rays of the controversial Shroud of Turin stack on top of one another, a battered face emerging from the folds through centuries of dried blood and gore. When the narrator explains how this lifelike image of Jesus Christ was achieved using a process of reverse photography—a technology that clearly did not exist 2,000 years ago—Judith feels what can only be tritely described as a spark running through her gut. The electric God current. How else can this be possible, other than by divine intervention?
+++The spoon slips from Judith’s fingers and clatters against the bowl, splattering melted ice cream onto her cashmere robe.
+++“Holy shit,” she whispers.

*

+++The news of Judith’s transformation comes as a shock to her friends and family. To go from ambivalence to believing not only in God, but in His only begotten son, Jesus Christ, seems sudden and extreme, and reeks of the evangelical, fiery tongued, convert-or-burn-in-hell zealots who live in the South, not in Westchester, New York.
+++At first everyone thinks Judith is joking. “Good one, Judy,” her sister Cindy tells her over the phone, children screeching in the background. “Mom is going to flip out.”
+++And she does. The reason Mom flips out is because Judith Rosenbaum was raised Jewish.
+++As a reformed Jewish household, Judith and her family attended temple only on Rosh Hashanah, Yom Kippur, and Passover, and forewent the whole keeping-kosher and no-driving on-Saturdays thing. But while her family was pretty lax on the religious side, culturally it was a different story. They had noisy, chaotic family gatherings filled with gefilte fish, bagels, lox, and shouting matches between Grandpa Saul and Great Aunt Toby that left Judith with a headache that lasted at least a week. And if, Elohim-forbid, one of the cousins wanted to date someone outside the Jewish faith, the treachery was akin to Cain’s murder of his own brother.
+++Judith tells her husband John about her conversion as they’re pickling cucumbers in the kitchen, hands slick and sticky. “I just want to explore my options,” she says. “Maybe try going to church, talking to a pastor, joining a Bible study… something.”
+++John closes his eyes and sighs deeply, breath leaking from his nostrils. He wipes his hands on the “World’s Best Dad” apron that their daughter Suzie picked out for him on his last birthday. “Okay, if that’s what you have to do. But what’s wrong with temple?”
+++“You know how I feel about temple, John. I’m so sick of going there and seeing all those people who only go on the holidays. They sit there and chat and ignore the rabbi and don’t even have the decency to pretend like they’re getting something out of the service. Being Jewish is about more than just going to temple on the holy holidays.”
+++“But we only go on the holy holidays.”
+++“Yes, but that’s because I can’t stand to be around those other people!”
+++Judith throws a cucumber into the jar, where it plops and shoots seasoned water into her eye. She curses and grabs a paper towel from the counter.
+++John places a placating hand on her shoulder. “Not everyone chats.”
+++“Almost everyone,” Judith says. “And why wouldn’t they? They’re Jews, not Christians. It’s not like they need to worry about going to hell.”
+++A biting vinegar scent stifles the kitchen. “Tell me again why you want to go to church?” John asks.
+++Judith clenches before silently counting to three and relaxing her shoulder. She turns to her husband, left eye red-rimmed. “I’m telling you, if you had seen that show you’d want to go, too. It’s the shroud that Jesus was buried in after He was tortured and hung on the cross. There was so much blood that they were able to outline a whole face from it. And they proved the image on it is real—it wasn’t made by paint, or drawing, or a photograph, or anything else.”
+++“Just because they can’t figure out what made it, doesn’t make it real.”
+++Judith shakes off John’s hand. “But the image could only have been created by an explosion of light!”
+++“So?”
+++“So it was created through Jesus’s resurrection. It’s science, John!” Sometimes Judith feels as though her husband will never understand her. But how does one really go about explaining such a transcendent experience, this visceral connection she feels to the suffering of the Son of God?
+++“Is this about something else?” John asks. “Is this about me turning down the Boswell job?”
+++If he had accepted, Boswell Engineering would have taken the family out of Westchester and moved them upstate. Out of the sprawl and into the solitude. Judith hates him for knowing precisely the right and wrong questions to ask. Her heart tightens, a warped jar impossible to twist open.
+++“No, it’s not about Boswell, it’s about my spiritual health. I told you I’d get over the job thing.”
+++John shrugs, his thin shoulders brushing up against his graying hair.
+++“Okay,” he says. “Fine. But please don’t tell Suzie. She’s confused enough as it is.”
+++Judith gives her husband a small smile, lets herself be pulled into a quick hug before extracting herself and moving over to wash her hands in the sink. This is where John never fails her: even through all the misunderstandings, in the end, he loves her too much to ever say no.

*

+++Judith never found a spiritual connection to God in the Torah or in her family’s infrequent trips to temple. She certainly didn’t find it during their half-assed Passover seder recitations, which were always interrupted by one of the grandpas shouting loudly for someone to pass the goddamn matzoh. She did feel a brief spark in her heart at her bat mitzvah, when she pronounced all the Hebrew words correctly and with confidence. At the following reception, as she slow-danced on top of her father’s shoes to “Heaven” by Bryan Adams, Judith thought perhaps her soul was ascending—she had received the blessing of womanhood and now God would fold over a corner of the universe and let her peek in at its vast secrets.
+++The only other time Judith felt close to God was when she went camping with her father. Each summer, the two of them would drive up to the Catskills, alone, because Mom and Cindy weren’t big fans of the outdoors. Her father would warble old Elvis Presley songs, holding his freckled fist in front of his mouth like a microphone as Judith giggled in the passenger seat. Once they set up camp he and Judith would sleep with all the tent flaps unzipped, open windows to the glittering sky. Nestled beneath her father’s armpit, watching for shooting stars as her father snored softly beside her, Judith would believe, for the briefest of moments, that she could understand the universe’s stretching infinity, the clawing feeling of being so big and so small at the same time. The feeling of being in the presence of God.

*

+++Every Tuesday Judith passes the Grace Lutheran Church after she drops off Suzie at Lincoln Elementary. Its quaint brick façade seems welcoming enough, so today she pulls up in front and lets the Camry idle, hand hovering over the ignition. Despite her resolute declarations that she’s going to start attending church, now that she’s here, she finds it hard to drag herself from the car. She’s been to cathedrals in Europe before but never to a real, day-to-day church, one with no tourists or cameras to mediate the consecration. Is she even allowed to go inside? What do people do in there? Judith imagines men in crimson robes chanting in Latin while rows of congregants sit, heads bowed, praying for redemption from an unforgiving Father. Earlier she practiced making the sign of the cross in the mirror, but her hand always fumbled above her chest.
+++She pops a breath mint into her mouth. Madonna’s “Like a Virgin” comes on the radio and she turns up the volume, tapping her fingernails against the plastic steering wheel. She hasn’t heard this song in ages; she’ll go in after it’s over. But once the synth fades away “St. Elmo’s Fire” comes on, from the movie soundtrack, and Judith tells herself that she’ll go in after this song is over. Soon she has her head propped against the headrest, knees bumping against the dash to Rick Springfield’s “Jesse’s Girl.”
+++Knuckles rap on the window and Judith’s eyes spring open. She gropes at the radio’s volume and rolls down the window. A plump older man with salt-streaked hair hunches over her door, smiling. Judith’s first instinct is to slam the car in reverse and speed away, but she takes a slow breath and cracks a half-smile in return.
+++“I haven’t seen you here before. I’m Pastor Ken,” he says, holding out his hand. “Are you new to our congregation?”
+++Judith stares at his outstretched hand, into his challah-colored eyes. She grips the steering wheel. “Oh, I’m, uh, just waiting for someone.”
+++The pastor nods and turns to walk away, but Judith relaxes her hands and says, “Wait.”
+++She opens the car door and steps out, smoothing down her skirt. “Actually, I’d like to talk to you. I’m Judith.”
+++“Nice to meet you, Judith,” the pastor says, smiling again. His front teeth are white, blinding whitening-strip white, while his back teeth are yellowed and dull.
+++Pastor Ken cups her elbow and leads her to the front of the church, but when she reaches its doors, Judith finds herself unable to go any farther. She looks down and notices that her skirt hits her just slightly above the knee and she panics, chiding herself on her wildly inappropriate church attire.
+++She gestures to a bench beside the door. “Can we sit out here instead?”
+++Pastor Ken nods. He’s still smiling; does he ever stop smiling?
+++They sit in the shade of a budding cherry tree, its blossoms reaching toward her with fragrant fingers. Judith imagines it’s an apple tree instead, and that she’s in the Garden of Eden, her own heart the snake.
+++“So what brings you here, Judith?” Pastor Ken asks, folding his hands and resting them on his stomach.
+++“I…I felt something the other night.” She stumbles over her words. “Something I’ve never felt before.” She looks away. “I want to learn more about Jesus.”
+++“Have you ever known Him before?”
+++Judith shakes her head. She’s known what it’s like to feel something beyond herself, something she couldn’t explain. But then again, who hasn’t?
+++“Ah, in that case, let me grab something for you.” The pastor pats Judith’s knee and stands. “Hold on just one second.”
+++After he enters the church Judith leans her head back and stares up at the sky, into the sun, letting its brilliance burn her eyes until they water. Soon Pastor Ken is standing blurrily in front of her, holding out a copy of the New Revised Standard Version Bible.
+++“We’re studying sin at Bible study this Thursday at 7:00,” he says. “It’d be wonderful if you could join us.”
+++Judith nods, blinking back the sun’s hot tears. She takes the Bible from his hands and places it beside her.
+++“But for now,” says Pastor Ken, sitting back on the bench, “a good place to start is prayer.” He takes Judith’s hand, pressing his thumbs over hers. His fingers are rough, calloused from what Judith imagines must be years of toiling missionary work, of building homes and schools for people in need, of performing charitable deeds that Judith herself has never taken the time to do. The pastor bows his head. She follows suit.
+++“Dear Lord,” he says. “Thank you for bringing Judith to Grace Lutheran today. Thank you for opening her eyes so that she may better find You…”
+++At any other point in her life, if Judith had been sitting in this very same position, listening to these very same words, she would have retreated into herself, mistaking her discomfort for disdain. But now, with soft pink petals swirling above her head and falling gently into her hair, Judith surprises herself by allowing warm tears to creep down her cheeks.

*

+++Growing up, Judith always felt as though there was an impossibly high set of standards for her to live up to. Both her parents were first-generation Americans, whose own parents had moved from Poland to Brooklyn in the ‘50s with more children than dollars in their pockets. Despite this, by his mid-twenties Judith’s father had managed to scrape together enough money to marry her mother and open a men’s clothing store in Queens. After Judith and her sister were born, the business became surprisingly lucrative, netting clients from the wealthier parts of Long Island.
+++Now set with comfortable means, Judith’s mother focused on providing her daughters with the opportunities she’d never had herself. Judith and Cindy were sent to rigorous summer camps, theater training, music lessons, and academic tutoring sessions meant to bolster their chances of getting into prestigious universities. There was never any overt pressure for Judith or her sister to excel—no yelling or punishment if they got a B on a history paper or placed on the second-tier tennis team—but the subtle demands, along with the crushing disappointment that her mother elicited whenever this happened, was loud enough. As the oldest child, Judith felt this pressure even more acutely than her sister. Cindy won all the spelling bee competitions but was allowed to quit playing the piano after she cried about how all the kids called her a “penis” instead of “pianist,” all the while Judith was forced to practice her bassoon for two hours each day in her bedroom. Sometimes, though, Judith would take a break from her studies and sneak away to help her father in his clothing shop. She folded sweaters beside him as they named all of the constellations, starting with the Big Dipper, until her mother called for Judith to come home and finish her French homework.
+++Judith became so accustomed to this life that she accepted it very early on, and buried any misgivings so deep within her that she sometimes forgot they were even there. But once she graduated from high school and went off to Dartmouth, and discovered that she could choose whether or not she went to class, or continued learning French, or kept practicing the bassoon, the resentment bloomed like dandelions after the rain.
+++That’s when Judith met John.
+++From the very beginning, John put Judith on a pedestal. He idolized her so purely and unabashedly that Judith felt much the same way that cities like London or Paris might—people viewing pastel prints of crooked, cobblestone streets from afar and imagining them flawless, refusing to acknowledge the rats and tenements and homeless families on each corner begging for change. For some reason that Judith couldn’t fathom John found her extraordinary, saw some spark in her of the person she was when tucked in the embrace of the mountains.
+++Best of all, John was an atheist.
+++The summer after she graduated from college, Judith insisted on bringing her new boyfriend home to meet the family. Admittedly, the fact that John wasn’t Jewish was one of the biggest reasons she invited him—his inherent ability to piss off her mother. Judith could sense the disappointment lurking behind her mother’s smile, the surprise at her flagrant disregard for her culture and upbringing. Her father was a good sport about it, and even invited John along to the annual camping trip. This time, though, he didn’t blast Elvis during the car ride. This time, he didn’t sing into a fake microphone.
+++Once they reached the mountains and John went off to relieve himself in the woods, Judith’s father pulled her aside. “Does he make you happy, Judy?” he asked.
+++Still smarting over the car ride, over the distance she now felt from her father, Judith folded her arms across her chest. “Of course he makes me happy.”
+++“You’re sure you’re not just doing this to make your mother upset?” Her father squeezed her arm and she pulled away.
+++“Of course not!” John cared for her so much, and that meant more to Judith than anything. Didn’t she deserve someone who loved her unconditionally, without exception or expectation?
+++Her father smiled, small and forced. “Good.”
+++Later, Judith and John went off in search of firewood while her father set up the tents. They made out in the solitude of the trees, John’s tongue flicking in and out of her mouth, before emerging from the woods with armfuls of branches and legs covered with dirt and scratches. There at the campsite, Judith’s father lay sprawled beside a collapsed tent, eyes open to the sky. A stake was clutched in his fist, its tip buried halfway in the dirt.
+++Judith ran over to him, branches spilling from her arms and knocking against her thighs. She shook him, pinching his shoulder underneath her palm, but he didn’t respond. She unfurled his hand from the stake and laced her fingers with his. But when she gripped her father’s hand, squeezed it, and flung it back toward his chest, it just hung there, limp and cold.

*

+++“…And He walked on water; He cured lepers; He even raised a man from the dead, for Christ’s sake,” Judith says.
+++“I don’t think you’re supposed to say that.”
+++Judith realizes her mistake and her eyes widen. “Goddamn it.”
+++“Nope, can’t say that, either.”
+++“Shit!”
+++“There you go.” John stretches his legs underneath the comforter, the laptop wobbling on his thighs.
+++“But don’t you see?” she insists. “He performed so many miracles. He performed so many that He was tortured and killed for them. How can you not believe in Him?”
+++John sighs. “All religions are based on miracles, Judy.”
+++“He died for us, John.” Judith glares at his computer, at the way her husband’s hand is hovering over the touchpad, ready to click, ready to move on from this conversation. He used to be so patient, stroking her hand while she spoke, just wanting to touch and be near her. Now she has to resist the urge to snap his laptop closed. “He cried and suffered and bled. We tortured and taunted Him and He still died, for us.” Judith aches for her husband to understand how you can love someone or something so much that it’s physically painful, that it leaves you doubled over and gasping for breath.
+++“You keep focusing on that,” John says. “If you’re going to be Christian, why can’t you focus on the good things? The ‘love is patient, love is kind’ stuff?”
+++“I’m just trying to wrap my head around it all.”
+++“It’s like you’re choosing to focus only on the morbid things. Can’t you at least try to focus on the positive? Don’t you want to be happy?”
+++A thread from the comforter comes loose and Judith rolls it between her fingers. She glances at her husband, content in his ignorance, in his avoidance of anything he doesn’t understand.
+++She looks away. “No one actually wants to be happy, John.”

*

+++Judith ignores her mother’s steady barrage of phone calls and voicemails for over a week. But when her mother calls eight times in two hours as Judith is doing laundry, Judith gives in because she knows that she’ll have to face her mother sometime, or her mother will literally never stop calling. So she answers. Before Judith can even say hello, or emit some sort of exasperated sigh, her mother starts in.
+++“Judith! Why haven’t you answered your phone? What if this had been an emergency? What if your uncle had fallen off his riding mower again?”
+++“Mom, if there ever is an actual emergency, you’ve completely desensitized me to it by now.”
+++“You shouldn’t ignore your family.”
+++Judith pulls the phone away from her face, sighs, and returns it, clamping it between her cheek and shoulder. She tosses dirty laundry from the hamper into the washer. “What’s up, Mom?”
+++“Can you pick up the latkes at Moishe’s on your way over next weekend? Your sister put in a special request.”
+++“Mom, we’re not coming over for Yom Kippur.”
+++“Why on earth not?”
+++“Because I’m not Jewish anymore, that’s why. We’ve been over this.” Judith squeezes the detergent bottle too hard, and an excess of goopy blue liquid splatters onto the soiled clothes.
+++“Judy,” her mother says sharply. “You can’t just decide to not be Jewish.”
+++“I can, and I did.”
+++“You did? And what does John have to say about it?”
+++Judith slams the washer’s lid shut. “He supports me, obviously.”
+++“Oh, I’m sure he does, Judy. He’d support anything you asked him to.”
+++At her father’s funeral, as the rabbi lamented his early passing, Judith felt as though her relatives were secretly looking at her, the weight of each shameful glance anchoring her to her seat. If only she hadn’t been off in the woods messing around with John, Judith might have been able to help her father, at least have been there with him as his heart gave up. Now, imagining that her father’s final thought about her may have been one of disappointment was mortifying. She should never have let John come along on the trip; she should have had the chance to sing Elvis with her father, alone. Judith had been selfish and spiteful, and now she would never be able to apologize. To her left, her mother let out a wail and reached for Judith’s hand, gripped it so tight that her veins bulged.
+++When the remorse became too much, Judith leaned to her right and whispered to John, “Let’s get married.” She wanted to make her indiscretion meaningful, had to make it worth it somehow, as if building a life with John would help ease the burden of her guilt. He looked at her, wide-eyed, and smiled through trembling lips. She knew he would say yes, that he would do anything she asked him to do.
+++They married the next summer. Judith’s mother did an about-face and welcomed John with open arms, and John good-naturedly converted to Judaism to appease the family. Everyone, it seemed, wanted to make it right. Judith threw herself into the marriage, supported John’s career, laughed at his jokes, cooked with him, gave him appropriate amounts of affection, and, sometimes, even felt genuine affection. She had a child with him. But, instead of making things right, her guilt just festered.
+++Judith sighs. “This isn’t about John.”
+++The spin cycle begins and the washer vibrates, some article of clothing with a clunky zipper slamming against the machine’s sides. Judith can feel the beginnings of a headache pressing behind her left temple. She drops the detergent. She still can’t decide if her grief should have nothing to do with John, or everything.

*

+++On Thursday afternoon Judith picks Suzie up from school and takes her out for ice cream. John is usually the one who spoils Suzie, but Judith figures that her daughter is young, that she has an easy capacity for joy, so Judith should keep happy while she still can. Suzie licks strawberry ice cream from her freckled fingers.
+++“Where’s Daddy?”
+++“He’s at work, sweetie.”
+++Suzie bites into the cone, scattering crumbs across the table. “I wish Daddy was here.”
+++“Well, he’s not.” Judith runs a napkin over the table’s checkered surface. “We’ll see him in a little bit.”
+++“Who’s Jesus, Mommy?”
+++Judith pauses and tries not to let the surprise show on her face. “He’s a man who lived 2,000 years ago.” She corrects herself. “Not just a man, the Son of God.”
+++“Oh. Okay.” Suzie takes another bite of her cone.
+++“Why do you ask, sweetheart?”
+++She shrugs. “I heard you and Daddy talking about him. He must be pretty old, huh?”
+++“Daddy?”
+++“No, Jesus.”
+++“Oh. Yes, He is.” Judith leans over to wipe ice cream from her daughter’s chin, and tucks a lock of curly brown hair behind her ear.
+++“Are we going to Grandma’s soon?”
+++Judith freezes. “I’m not sure, sweetheart,” she responds carefully.
+++“Can we, please? Grandma says she’ll make my favorite next time we go over.” Suzie’s favorite is kugel, a sickeningly sweet dessert with noodles and raisins and a generous heaping of cinnamon. It had been Judith’s father’s favorite, too.
+++Judith forces a smile. “We’ll go soon, I promise.”
+++As they drive home the sky darkens, but only a few stars flicker through the suburban haze. Judith turns on her headlights. Sometimes, for no real apparent reason, she has an urge to turn her car into oncoming traffic just to see what will happen. She thinks about how much faith people put in each other every day, to be alert in their driving, to not jerk their wheels.
+++Judith’s thoughts switch to Jesus, whipped and bleeding and carrying a cross so heavy that it threatens to crush His bones. As she glances back at Suzie, buckled into her car seat and joyfully singing along to the radio, Judith wonders if she could suffer even the tiniest fraction of what He did if it meant saving someone she loved. She wants to say yes, to think her heart is capable of such selflessness, but doubt gnaws at her gut until she’s empty. She flips off the radio. She can’t imagine a suffering much worse than that.

*

+++As soon as they step inside the entryway, Judith’s phone buzzes in her pocket. She checks the caller ID. It’s her mother. She shoos Suzie into the living room and answers.
+++“Mom, you can’t use Suzie like that.” She drops her keys onto the table by the front door.
+++“Judy, that’s not how you’re supposed to answer a phone. Now, how am I using Suzie?”
+++“Telling her that you’ll make her kugel if we come over? That’s coercion!”
+++“I just want you to come over for Yom Kippur, Judy. It’s been too long.”
+++“I know.” Judith sighs and leans against the doorframe. “We’ll come over soon. Just not this weekend.”
+++“But the whole family is going to temple and then coming over to break the fast. Everyone is asking about you.”
+++Judith wraps her hand around the edge of the door, squeezing it until the wood chafes her skin. “Mom, I told you, I don’t want to participate in Jewish holidays anymore.”
+++“But I’ve already made the kugel.”
+++“Mom, we’re not coming over!” Judith slaps the door frame, her palm an angry red. She ends the call before her mother has a chance to respond.
+++John is standing just inside the kitchen, staring at her. “What’s the harm in going over there, Judy?”
+++“Please, John,” she says. “Not you, too.”
+++“They’re your family. Our family.”
+++“I don’t want to listen to them bicker about inconsequential bullshit and then have the nerve to look down on me just because I’m actually trying to take my religion seriously.”
+++“Are you, though? Why can’t you take Judaism seriously? Yom Kippur is a very meaningful holiday.”
+++Judith glares at him. She hates him for not understanding; shouldn’t someone who’s married to her, who sleeps with her and eats with her and breathes the same air as her, just understand, no explanation needed? He doesn’t understand why she truly wanted to marry him, to try and assuage herself of the crushing guilt; doesn’t understand how her whole life has been shaped around other people; doesn’t understand the resentment and disappointment she keeps packed away in jars that are brimming and starting to crack. He doesn’t understand why she wants to move, to get out of the city’s blinding radius; he doesn’t understand why she’s seeking Christianity in all of its power and punishment and glory.
+++“Yom Kippur isn’t good enough, okay? To only atone for your sins one day a year and expect that to be enough to last you for the next 364 days? There’s absolutely no accountability.”
+++Judith knows she’s been unreasonable with John. Maybe it’s her own fault that she’s been acting like this, but it’s not his, and so when he reaches for her hand Judith tells herself not to flinch, to just let him take it. She at least owes him that.
+++“There are really good parts of Judaism, Judy,” he insists. “Imagine a group of people who can trace their heritage back thousands of years, who have stuck together that long. It’s really special. And there’s not this eternal damnation like in Christianity. There’s not the guilt, and the fear.”
+++Judith jerks her hand away. Her eyes sting and she rubs them until they’re red and raw. “How do you not get it? I want the guilt; I want the fear.”
+++“No, Judy…” He reaches for her again but Judith backs away, her face inflamed.
+++“You don’t get anything, do you, John? What do you care if I’m Jewish or Christian? You’re an atheist; you don’t even believe in anything.”
+++“I believe in family.” John takes her hand and Judith lets him hold it for just a moment before pulling away again.
+++“You think you can just hold someone’s hand and everything will be fine. People’s feelings don’t matter because everything will be fixed if you just smile at them, right?”
+++John’s fists clench. “How can I help you if you never even tell me how you’re feeling?”
+++She can hear John trying to hold back his anger. Judith despises herself for how excited she is to ruffle him, to see her resentment reflected in someone else, too.
+++“I do tell you, John; you just don’t get it.”
+++John’s body tightens, hums like a guitar string. “Why don’t you explain it to me, Judy?”
+++“I don’t have time for this. I have to go to Bible study.” Judith turns and John grabs her shoulder. He pinches her more roughly than he ever has before, and an involuntary laugh escapes her.
+++“Don’t you dare leave now, Judy. We’re not done here.”
+++Judith wrenches away, grabbing her keys from the table. When she storms out the door, John doesn’t try to stop her. Suzie yells “Mommy!” and she almost turns, but John shushes their daughter by saying, “It’s okay, Mommy just needs a few minutes by herself; let Mommy go.”
+++In the car, the seatbelt bites into Judith’s shoulder where John gripped her and she relishes the sharpness. The Bible lies on the passenger seat, its gleaming plastic cover a reassuring beacon of hope. Judith presses her palm against it.

*

+++The title of tonight’s Bible study is “Why We Need Salvation: The Consequences of Sin.” Before they begin discussing human evildoings, Pastor Ken invites the class to participate in communion. He explains how the bread is the body of Christ, and the wine is His blood. Judith closes her fingers over the piece of bread the pastor drops into her hand, clasping it against her palm. On the wall is a painting of Jesus hanging from the cross, His body battered and torn. Next to it is another where He’s smiling, holding an injured baby lamb. The Lamb of God. The world, riddled with sick and lost creatures. Judith feels a thrill as she consumes His body and blood, but whether the thrill is guilt, or fear, or redemption, she can’t say.
+++As the Bible study commences Judith at first feels vindicated—they study a verse from Romans about how the wage of sin is death, and she likes it, the idea that some sin is so egregious that one must pay the ultimate penalty—but the readings soon devolve into how all sins are erased through the love of Jesus. People smile, nod, express gratitude at God’s easy forgiveness. Judith quickly decides she doesn’t like anyone in the class, these ignorant people with their open hearts and bright outlooks.
+++“Shouldn’t we feel guilty?” she asks. “If we sin, we should face the responsibility.”
+++Pastor Ken smiles. “When sins are forgiven, there is no more reason for fear and sadness. That’s from the Book of Psalms.”
+++Everyone else nods. Judith’s dislike multiplies faster than fish and loaves of bread.
+++After the Bible study concludes, Judith stops in the restroom and washes her hands. This concept of forgiveness is just too simple, and she doesn’t trust it. How does anyone deserve forgiveness, with the billions of selfish and hurtful and horrible decisions that are made each day? She turns off the tap and looks at herself in the mirror, sees her lips stained red by wine. The blood of Jesus, shed for us. She resolves to talk further with Pastor Ken.
+++By now the others have left and the church is empty. When Judith knocks on the office door she only hears shuffling, and so she opens it. Pastor Ken has his back to her, drawing the window shades. Judith glances at his desk. There, sandwiched between a cup of blue pens and a Bible, is a glass of half-drunk wine. The thick scarlet liquid looks suspiciously similar to the wine just used during the Bible study communion, the sacred blood that gave her such a thrill. The pastor turns around and notices her gaze, letting out a short laugh. He hurries back and moves the wine to a shelf underneath his desk, out of sight.
+++“My apologies, Judith. Now, what can I help you with? Did the Lord’s Word speak to you this evening?”
+++Judith perches on a bland faux-leather chair, gripping its open arms. “To be honest, I’m still not sure I understand His Word, Pastor.”
+++“Well, you certainly seem to have some strong opinions about the consequences of sin. What have you done that deserves such punishment, Judith?”
+++She looks at his desk, at where the wine used to be. “Haven’t we all done things that deserve punishment?”
+++“We have all sinned, certainly. The good news is that we can always be forgiven.”
+++Judith knows deep down, deep where she keeps everything that threatens to burst her open, that the pastor, in his irreverence, has just unknowingly given her what she wanted, has proven that we’re all wretched creatures, undeserving of forgiveness. She unclasps her hands from the chair, remembering how she unfurled her father’s fingers from a stake years before.
+++“Always?” she asks.
+++“If you are sincere when you ask for forgiveness,” says Pastor Ken. “Then yes, always.”

*

+++Judith gets into her car and starts driving. She doesn’t know where she’s going, doesn’t have a particular destination in mind, but she heads further north, away from the city and from Westchester. The buildings and trees pass by her in blurs. Rolling down the window, Judith breathes in the heavy scent of maple and pine.
+++After leaving the church, Judith thought she would feel something different—vindication, a renewed sense of purpose, perhaps a reignited love for John and Suzie, something—but she only feels numb. She knows that in the scheme of things her flitting suffering is trivial; so many people lead trifling lives like hers, endless days filled with strings of disappointment and regret. Why should Jesus care about her suffering, her emptiness?
+++An hour passes, then two. Soon the Catskills emerge from the horizon, and Judith’s eyes fill with the same landmarks that her father used to point out to her all those years ago. She strains to see the sky but it’s cloudy tonight, a dark blanket smothering the tops of the trees. Instead, Judith focuses on the headlights of the cars driving past. The quick brightness and gradual dimming, the soothing ebb and flow.
+++Judith crests the top of a hill and sees a valley stretched out for miles below, filled with city and car lights winking and blinking, their own miniature constellations. Bryan Adams comes on the radio. She turns up the volume and grips the steering wheel, pressing her fingers into the hard grooves. She pictures herself dancing on top of her father’s shoes, arms wrapped around his waist, head pressed to his chest, ear against his beating heart. Catching shooting stars from the corner of her eye through the open tent flap with her father sleeping beside her.
+++She presses the accelerator. The speedometer needle moves from 60 to 85, then higher. As the next oncoming car bends around a curve, Judith stares into its shimmering headlights, aching, wishing she could be engulfed until she became a pinprick, just a tiny speck in the universe, in the blinding radiance of God.

 

Dani Heinemeyer is a Pittsburgh writer by way of South Dakota and San Diego. She’s a grant writer, editor, and graduate of the MFA in Creative Writing program at San Diego State University. Her stories and essays have appeared in Midwestern Gothic, Ghost Town Literary Magazine, Fiction International, and the States of the Union anthology.

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