When we built the church, my son was fifteen.
I knew him then. He was clear-eyed and steady, sawing and sanding the wood for the pews with confidence. He played football up at the high school but he didn’t think it made him god’s gift to teenage girls. He just liked the feeling of his muscles working like a machine and the mathematics of the plays, like chess at high speed. I knew these things because he told me, and I was so pleased he would talk honestly to his father that I didn’t think to ask who taught him chess. I only ever knew checkers.
The church was a simple structure, just posts and beams holding up a roof, no walls. The pews were more like benches. Our house was on the side of the road, and on the other side there was a field where my father had once pastured his dairy cows. The cows died of old age decades ago and the wire fence rusted away. I had stood in this field and thought about what would give comfort to people like me who weren’t proud of their faithlessness, whose own mistrustful brains had locked us out of the kingdom. I wanted simplicity, purity, a place to go be still. After we erected the church, I nailed a plank of wood to a tree on the side of the road, and on it I painted an arrow pointing towards the structure and the word ATHEISTS.
When I told my wife Deb she’d need to run the store all week, she handled it with grace, although I knew inside she was laughing at me. It wasn’t the first scheme of mine she’d put up with. We ran a little mini mart and gas station down by the interstate, making a living off of people on their way to somewhere else, and she was better at the books and the ordering and such anyway. I was always too distractable.
So my son and I drove the hour north into the city. We had a box full of fliers to hand out on the streets, and they showed a map I’d drawn to the field and the words ATHEISTS, AGNOSTICS, AND DOUBTERS! SO YOU WORSHIP NOTHING? LET US WORSHIP NOTHING TOGETHER. SUNDAYS 11 AM.
I’d gotten him to look up addresses of places atheists might congregate: college buildings, bars with foreign beer, radical bookstores. One particular street corner had them all, so that’s where we stood. I held out the little squares of paper to the fast-walking pedestrians. “Church for atheists,” I said, again and again.
The first to stop was a man about my own age with little wire spectacles and a fine wool coat. “Hey buddy,” he said. “I don’t need to be converted. This is offensive, you know.”
“I’m not trying to convert you,” I explained. The speech I’d been reciting in my mind all morning bubbled up and rushed out; the man even took a step back on the sidewalk like the wave might hit him. “I’m a non-believer too, friend. But I remember my days of believing, don’t you? Taking your neighbor’s hand in fellowship, grape juice communion, picnics with deviled eggs, late-summer gleaning for the hungry, pulling out those red hymnals and singing together. Don’t you remember feeling whole and complete then? We can still have that, even without Jesus or Mohammed or whoever. We can still sing in joy and beat our chests in grief –“
He walked away before I finished, holding up a palm as a signal not to follow. I guess some people don’t have any days of believing to remember, or else they are proud.
“I don’t know about this,” my son said. “I think he felt like you were preaching at him. Maybe we should just be quiet and let them come to us.”
I agreed to try his method, so we stood in silence, the maps in our hands quaking in the wind. People passing by barely glanced at us, and when they did they tried to hide it.
A young woman stopped in front of my son, smiled at him, and took the piece of paper. That was the moment it registered to me how his shoulders had broadened over the last year, how if he were a stranger I would think of him as a young man, not a boy.
“So what if I’m not religious but I’m really spiritual?” asked the young woman. Or maybe she was young enough to be called a girl. I wasn’t sure. She wore a tank top and tight stretchy sort of pants that came to her knees, and she had a rolled-up mat strapped to her back.
“Um,” said my son, darting his eyes back to me. “Spiritual how?”
She cocked her head to the side, ponytail wagging. “Well, I grew up Episcopalian, and I definitely think Jesus was really wise. But I’m a little bit Buddhist now, too. Like I meditate and stuff.” Her eyes flickered over to me like she’d just noticed I was there.
“No,” I said, and reached out to pluck the flier from her hands. “See, we’re doing the opposite of that. You gave up the structure and the rules but you kept the believing. We want the structure and the rules, the comfort, without any believing.” I wanted to say, and we will not stitch together scraps of Buddhism and paganism and Hippie Jesus to make ourselves an ill-fitting garment, but I didn’t.
She furrowed her brow and walked away. My son watched her go.
“We didn’t need her,” I said. “And let me do the talking.”
It took a while but a couple stopped to chat with us, punk looking types, and I was surprised at how interested they were. My speech bubbled up again, and it went on, and I was telling them all about how badly I had wanted to believe but one day when I was about my son’s age, I just couldn’t do it anymore. It didn’t make any sense. “The music,” I told them, “that was the only time I could almost get it back. That organ playing, and all the voices – as I fall on my knees with my face to the setting sun, oh Lord have mercy on me…” I realized I had actually started to sing and that I was indeed sinking to my knees out on that filthy sidewalk.
The couple laughed kindly and applauded. “So are you going to come on Sunday?” my son asked them.
They looked at each other and their eyebrows went up. “Oh,” said the man. “This is really…for real?”
“Yes,” I said, standing, brushing the grit from my jeans.
“Oh,” said the man. “Well, cool. Good luck.” They walked off, whispering to each other.
After that my son and I were quiet for a while. Then he said, “Let me take some of them. I’ll put them in coffee shops and stuff. People will just find them.” I nodded, sensing he was embarrassed by me. In that moment I didn’t feel great, either.
The first week no one came which I knew was a likely outcome but disappointed me anyway. “Maybe eleven is too early,” my son suggested, lifting the kitchen curtain to peer at the field. “Most atheists probably sleep late.” Deb snorted. But I thought it was worth a try, so I revised the flier: SUNDAYS AT NOON. He took them into the city – said it was probably better if I didn’t come.
No one came the next week either. We discussed what other revisions might be made to our plan. It occurred to me that it’s easy for atheists to pretend to be believers, and that there are many situations that might make it seem desirable: to please family or in-laws, for example, or to get elected to public office. I couldn’t think of many situations where a believer would want to be mistaken for an atheist – atheists might be afraid of being identified as such.
My son suggested that free food or drink might be an enticement. I agreed with him. I brought home a bulk bag of ground coffee and two airpots from the mini mart. That week he built a table for the coffee pots, and I added words to the sign so that it read: FREE COFFEE FOR ATHEISTS, and under that, BELIEVERS WELCOME.
We dispensed with the starting time. Instead I tried my best to put fresh coffee out a few times a day, when I wasn’t down the road at the store. My son helped out when he got home from football practice. Beside the coffee pots, we put a dozen paper cups, a jar of sugar, a shaker of Coffee Mate, some plastic stirrers, and a little wicker basket marked DONATIONS.
It went on more or less the same for a few months. “You think this coffee is free for us?” Deb asked. So I marked up the prices 30 cents a cup at the shop. Wouldn’t make a bit of difference to the people passing through.
I knew neither of them thought anyone would ever come, but I didn’t mind. My wife and I were married in the local Methodist church, of course, but after that we never went any more. I wouldn’t have stopped her if she wanted to go, but she always said, “I doubt God cares whether I pray there or at home. And if I don’t have to see goddamn Linda Prickett every week for the rest of my life that’s just fine.”
My son went to church from time to time with his friends growing up. Baptist, Pentecostal, Catholic – he got a taste of everything. Most Sundays he just slept in. My father would have come for me with the belt if I told him I just didn’t feel like going to worship. I let that boy have all the freedom I never had.
Whether or not he believed anyone would show up, he kept putting out the fliers on the weekends. He had turned 16 and gotten his license, so I let him take the truck into the city. He’d be gone for hours. I’m not dumb, I knew he was probably getting up to something else too. Probably converting to Christian Science or some such just to spite me. But like I said, I thought it was important for him to be independent. Make his own choices.
It was in April that I found the crane. I went out at seven to put fresh coffee for the morning, and some coins glinted from the basket. Beside them sat a little folded paper crane. I counted the stack of paper cups and instead of 12, there were only 11.
I didn’t want to lecture my family about lacking faith, for obvious reasons, but I couldn’t help bragging a little. “We made 87 cents last night,” I told them over dinner.
“Probably just someone lost, looking for the highway,” my son said.
“That’s fine with me,” I said. He turned away and set his fork down.
“Not going to eat your chicken?” Deb asked him. I noticed as she pointed to his plate that he’d polished off his green beans and potatoes and dinner roll, but left the chicken breast untouched.
“I told you, Mom, I’m a vegetarian,” he said, standing to push in his chair.
“Since when?” I asked him, but he walked off to his room so I directed the question at his mother instead.
She sighed. “This morning.”
There were no more cranes, but I felt purposeful and serene. I went into the shop less and less. One evening, I found a twenty in the donation basket, about half the sugar gone, and 9 cups in the stack. “See,” I told Deb. “We’re starting to make back a little of the bottom line.”
Someone must have written us up somewhere, then, because before long I was having to buy new paper cups once a month. Twelve visitors a month might not be a congregation but I considered it a success. I never saw them. Most often the basket would have a little money in the morning or in the afternoon, meaning they came overnight or when I was checking in at the store midday.
The first time I was approaching the clearing with fresh coffee and saw a car parked on the side of the road, I hesitated. It was my chance to go up and shake hands, to be together with my own kind. But I felt reluctant – what if they didn’t like me? What if I ruined it for them? I didn’t want to be a preacher or a leader. I just wanted this place to exist. So I decided to remain invisible, tending my shelter unseen. It seemed better that way. I went back home until the car disappeared.
The crane-maker must have returned, because a few more folded paper birds appeared on the benches. Then someone – the same person or not, I don’t know – tacked up a few snowflakes on the posts, the kind children cut out from folded paper. Little trinkets appeared on the table, plastic jewelry and quarter-machine toys. Someone wove a garland from the field grass and draped it from the roof beams. I often sat there myself, hands folded in my lap and a cup of sugary coffee beside me, listening to the garlands and the snowflakes rustle, letting the sunset fill up my tired chest.
One dusk I walked up with a fresh pot, checking for cars on the side of the road as I normally did. There weren’t any so I didn’t expect anyone to be there. But as I approached, I saw a woman in the clearing. She sat on the front pew with her elbows on her knees and her head in her hands. A mess of reddish brown hair covered her face and neck. I couldn’t tell how old she was or what she looked like. She was too far away to hear, but I suspected from her shuddering back that she was crying. I went back to the house.
My son had come home and he was sitting on our front steps, gazing out in what seemed like boredom at the sky. “There’s a woman,” I said.
“Where?” he said, which seemed to me like a purposefully dumb question. His face used to be so open to me. Every emotion would spell itself out in his eyes. Now I couldn’t read any of his thoughts. I wondered if someone had taught him how to keep his face still and blank like that.
“Our church,” I said. “No car. I wonder how she came.”
He frowned at me. “Didn’t you ask her?”
“No,” I said. “I didn’t want to disturb her. She looked like she was crying.”
He stood up from the couch. “What if she needs help or something?”
“That’s not what we’re here for,” I told him.
“But what if she’s in trouble, or her husband beats her up, or she’s homeless?” he asked.
“Well then, she’s found a peaceful place for the moment. But I don’t run a homeless shelter.”
He stood and grabbed the coffee pot from my hand, pushing past my shoulder and marching to the clearing, muttering something about me being a hypocrite. I went inside. At least he was interested.
I helped my wife get dinner on the table. We sat there eating quietly, his plate of vegetables getting cold.
“He’s not going to be able to keep up on the field unless he gets some protein,” I said.
She arched an eyebrow. “You know he quit the team,” she said.
This was news to me. “What? When?”
“Last month. He didn’t want me to tell you. Thought you’d be mad.”
“I don’t give a damn about football,” I said. “And it seems like he’s been trying to make me mad.” I chewed my food for a minute.
“Then where’s he been going after school if he hasn’t been at practice?”
“Working,” she said. “Bagging groceries up at the supermarket. Saving up to buy himself his own car.”
I thought about the city, and his changing face. “Well, when were you planning on telling me this?”
She set her mouth in a line. “You been a little distracted lately. Thought I’d wait until you noticed.”
I heard the door swing open from the hallway and stood to go to it. I wanted to tell him he could quit football if he wanted. I didn’t care. I just wanted him to tell me about it.
He was with the woman, who stood behind him in the doorway, almost hiding slightly. Earlier, when I couldn’t see her well, I had imagined she might be beautiful, young. The mind tends to fill in a face that way. But now I saw her face was ravaged, rough, with the sucked-in cheeks that meant missing teeth. Her eyebrows were plucked to thin straight lines over small eyes. She was bony, hollow chested, clutching a cigarette. I still couldn’t tell her age – I had a strong suspicion she was years younger than her face looked. Junkie, I thought. Prostitute.
“This is Misty,” he said, which just about confirmed all my suspicions. “Can she come for dinner?” The tilt of his chin told me this was a challenge.
“I want to talk to you a minute first,” I said, putting my hand on his elbow and pulling him through the door. Misty stayed where she was, just outside, eyes down, seemingly unfazed.
“Look now,” I whispered. “Get your mother to make her up a plate if you want. Take some food from the pantry, too. Give her the money from the donation basket–“ if she hasn’t taken it already, I thought.
“Give her a ride wherever she needs to go, where there’s people can help her.”
“No,” he said, his face set hard again, all of a sudden like I was looking back at my father when he was a young man. “Let her in.”
“I know you’re testing me,” I said. “But this is still my house. And out there –“ I pointed in the direction of the shelter, “and in here are not the same thing.”
“They’re supposed to be,” he said, looking disgusted enough to spit.
“Says who? Jesus? Mohammed? Buddha? You don’t believe any of that any more than I do. I built that place so that people like us –“
“People like you,” he interrupted. “No, not even people like you. Just you. Just so you could feel better.” He turned and walked out the door, slamming it behind him. I heard the engine turn over and it wasn’t the first time I questioned my decision to let him have the spare key to the truck. I walked to the kitchen window and watched the backs of their heads drive away.
By eleven he still wasn’t back and Deb convinced me to just go to bed, that it would blow over my morning and if it didn’t, well, the cops would make us wait that long to go looking for him anyway.
It felt like the very same moment I feel asleep, but it must have been hours later, that the scent of wood smoke woke me. As soon as I smelled it, I felt like it had all been foretold. I stood looking out the window in my boxers and undershirt, watching the flames rise from the field, silhouetting the truck and the figure of the young man that stood between our house and the fire.
I knew I’d have to call the fire department in a second or risk the conflagration getting truly out of hand, and I knew that I would tell the police when they came that it had been some kind of freak accident. A lit cigarette maybe, or some kind of campfire gone awry. I would not tell them I had seen my son there, and that I could not tell whether his back was to me or to the flames. I would keep my promise to let him worship however he chose. If this was how he meant to do it, I would let him.
Michelle E. Crouch, a co-founder of APIARY Magazine, has been published in Indiana Review,Treehouse Magazine, and The Rumpus. She currently lives in Wilmington, NC. Her website is mcrouch.com.
Photo credit: Trey Ratcliff on Flickr