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Jan/Feb 2004 fiction

Agnostic

by Diane Zinna


I sign my father out of his hospital for the whole day. We have breakfast at Pancake Cottage. The place is hot, but he won't zip his jacket down. We eat cheese blintzes and, though it's eight in the morning, drink Cokes. Then we drive to church, so he can receive communion before he dies.

We come upon the little white church from the road, and I see the front of it for what seems like the first time. As a child, I ran back paths through peeled birches and pines to get here, entered through a back door as though it were the only one. As I drive, I tap my father on the knee to comfort him. He's wearing his hound's-tooth pants, his best ones. He hasn't worn them since the day, maybe ten years ago, we buried the dog in the backyard, and I can tell they haven't been cleaned. I see little black hairs stuck on his knees, and little green spots from kneeling on the grass. The pants have sewn-in seams, and the fabric looks stiff and uncomfortable. Though his face is ruined with stroke, I can tell he's grimacing. The church is bright with whitewash. He won't look at it.

"You should take your jacket off," I say. He shakes his head—the long, slow no that means he's embarrassed of something. I tug at the zipper near his neck and his face is scrunched up and his eyes are watering. "Come on, it's a hot day," I coax, and when he obliges me, I see he has a large cardboard nametag slung around his neck. It is tied with red yarn and says "JOHN ROBINSON" in fat black magic marker. The hospital people make him wear it, because he cries a great deal, and has difficulty finding his way from his room to his Daily Living Class. I remove it.

There are three wooden crosses erected near the road, the middle one a bit taller, advantaged, never slopped with mud from passing vehicles—or else it's the only one they wash down, I don't know. I'd never known that the church was both Lutheran and Evangelical, as the sign in the front reads. And for a moment I can not help but feel that the Evangelical part was kept secret from me in childhood, that my Sunday School teachers and parents and pastor were privy to this other knowledge, in the hopes that I might mature, with perfect attendance and the right arts and crafts, into an evangelist. One more New Testament pop-up book might have changed me, unwittingly, into a woman who carts loaves of bread door-to-door and talks about Revelations constantly, to strangers and in front of children.

But now, drooped willow branches brush over my Ford like palm fronds fanning, and I am excited about my religion again, impatient for peace of mind, and hopeful for my dad. I brush at the knees of his pants, but the dog hairs stick there. When I slow the car, it starts to shake so that the dash rattles. It does this a lot, and the man at the garage said that it was a shock thing that would cost me upwards of two hundred dollars to repair. My father slams the gearshift violently back and forth, and, though I yell at him that he's going to break it, I'm impressed at how his quick-fix solution works every time.

My father is very much into quick fixes, home-based remedies, self-help, old wives' tales. He once met a man who'd been a soldier. The man told my father that detonated landmines emit a kind of growth energy. My father went to the Army-Navy Surplus and bought up all the store's dead mines. Then he spent a weekend burying them in our victory garden. We'd win contests, he said (we didn't live in the kind of town that holds big-vegetable contests). He planted them in a long, neat row between the cherry tomatoes and all our dead dogs, mounding up humps of earth over each little mine. Larger squash—he was certain that all those discarded caps and detonator wrappings were emitting. And so from the back porch, those days before he went into the hospital, instead of staring at his hands, he stared at the humps like they were working magic, like they might spontaneously burst.

He is an agnostic, and he's dying. For me, it's frightening that his weak body might be mercilessly tormented because he'd never in his life rather be safe than sorry. And I wonder, in this state of mind, as he exists, not really thinking, would he change his mind about things if he could? And if he simply can't, then does he deserve to be damned?

When I was a child, he countered the faith's every dictum. I remember once I had pieces of felt scattered around me on the kitchen floor—felt doves, olive branches, a big felt ark, a Noah with sequin eyes—and he told me, "Just think about this critically, Regine. Every kind of animal?" and I said yes and glitter-glued some drowning people into a Saran-Wrap sea.

"But in science, don't they tell you to question everything?" he said.

That banner I made stayed hanging in the church rectory for as long as I can remember. I half expect to see it when I walk in today.

"Come in with me," I say to him now.

He rants, makes motions like he's pulling pins, tossing grenades at the small white church. I get out of the car, and he leans way over toward the driver's side. His head disappears beneath the window.

"I'm going to bring him out here to the car," I yell, walking backwards. I'm at the double doors, and there's wrinkled brown advertisements for A&P specials stapled to them. My father hasn't sat up. I think he's gone to sleep, and I worry that he might also wrinkle his pants.

"Daddy. Sit up," I call.

I can't see him, but I can hear him yell, "Boom!"

I enter through the back door and notice the familiar smell of the church. It's the carpeting, the wood oil, the old coffee at the bottom of cups. I'm in the back room, and before me is my old pastor's desk, catty-cornered and cluttered with papers and little fidget toys: a Rubik's Cube, a few McDonaldland Happy Meal wind-up Fry Guys. Pastor Alvater was always a fidgeter.

I look around and remember that the collection plates got stacked in that wide, second-to-bottom, file-cabinet drawer. The pastor kept a Dustbuster plugged in under his desk, and we children fought over it after late Mass, fought to be the one who got to vacuum the velvet pew cushions. I'm ten minutes early. I sit down in the pastor's chair and remember a hundred other things. And I wonder what the pastor will remember of me.

I was once dressed, uncomfortably, in clothes that my mother made for me—the stiff, unwashed fabric of a spring-green skirt, a starched shirt with sleeves that were too short—and I'd slept on curlers the night before so my hair could be right for Easter morning. I'd painted my fingernails with a coral-colored nail polish, all dots. Like the dots on a die, one through five. No sixes. That'd be sacrilege, right? My father and I had played Yahtzee late into the night, and my father had helped me paint the dots on my nails.

I remember the pastor was at the altar, staring at my hands that morning. I was holding the hymnal open for my friend Lee to see. It was a small class—only four of us studying catechism the hour before early Mass. Pastor Alvater looked behind him, at the plastic, two-story transparent cross hanging against bolt curtains. You could see the fluorescent bulbs inside of it, and the installation instructions on the bulbs. He pushed aside the heavy green curtains and fumbled for the plug, for the socket, for the switch. And then suddenly the cross was flashing, and the dim room was made brighter with buzzing light.

"Regine, come up beside me, here." I handed the hymnal to Lee and walked up beside the pastor, into his blue, buzzing flood.

"Let's all see those fingernails, now."

I wagged them, and the other children laughed.

"Like the dots on dice, is that right?"

"Yeah."

"Yes," he corrected.

"Yes."

I looked at him, and for a moment I didn't realize I was in trouble. He was staring at me and breathing heavily. "I want you to wash that off," he said.

"Now?"

"Yes."

He directed the rest of the kids to a page in their hymnals, and they began reciting psalms. He led me to the little bathroom and turned the water on hot, but of course it wouldn't just wash off.

"Use soap."

"It doesn't come off like this," I said.

I could hear the children, each speaking at his or her own speed. He disappeared, leaving me to watch the small bathroom mirror fog up with steam. He returned with a scissor, showed me how to hold them open without cutting myself, and he told me to scrape it off. I did. He watched. In places, I scraped the top of my fingernails down so much that blood showed through.

I had thought, If I could just show him how badly I want this nail polish off.

"You're right, it was so ugly," I said to him as he smiled and clutched his heart, the two of us in that tiny, lemon-yellow bathroom. We both looked at the cross hanging above the sink, the one made from dried-out palms, decorated with dried-out baby's breath, and stained with the red color of pressed red berries. "I can't believe I came in here like that," I said, and he pinched my cheek, told me I'd be alright.

But I know now, as I sit here and note the doodles on Alvater's desk pad, the numbers with addition and minus signs—I know it was all overly dramatic. The pencils in the pastor's cup rattle, and I hear a train passing and then the honking of a car horn. I hurry outside, and there's my father, his mouth open in a kind of smile, pounding on my horn.

"What are you doing?"

He ignores me and holds the horn down. I hurry to him.

"Dad, you've got to stop that." The train is already gone, but he's staring ahead of him at the tracks of the Long Island Railroad like there are endless freight cars passing. He lets go of the horn. He says something I can not understand and starts crying. I think in this moment, that I am very good for holding his head in my hands and touching his hair. I look back toward the church, hoping to see Alvater there. He's not there. I look up at the sky.

My father won't stop crying. I root through a plastic bag on the floor of the car. I find his self-help tapes. "Ten Minutes a Day to a Happier Marriage." "You Too Can Live Without Pain." "Betty George on Illness-Induced Stress." I slip this one into the tape deck, and my father stops crying long enough to hear which one I've chosen. I look at my watch. "You'll be fine," I tell him.

When I was young, I was always confusing loyalty to God with loyalty to the pastor. In second grade, my father fought with him. We'd left our dog in his son's kennel when we went on vacation to Amish Country. When we picked our dog up, one of his testicles was all raw. My father told Alvater on the phone that our dog had come home with a loose nut and kennel cough, and his son didn't know how to run a business. Alvater told my father he should sign me up for Lutheran Cheerleading Camp. My father told him that I had too much religion in me as it was and that it was messing up my grades in science.

And then the following Sunday, there was a full-page advertisement for his son's kennel on the back cover of the announcements pamphlet. And when he called all of us up to the altar for the children's sermon, he spoke about agnostics in front of the whole congregation. He said that waffling is worse than denial, that the man crucified to Jesus' left was a waffler, that he went to Hell. My face burned. I prayed he wouldn't say my father's name out loud, as though that would have damned him, as though Alvater had such prerogative. I knew the word "agnostic." It was part of my father's character. I read Bertrand Russell's Why I am Not a Christian with as much pubescent fervent curiosity and dread as The Naked Ape and the small pink tome, Intimate Behavior. Those were my father's books, and I was ashamed.

When Mass was over and I was picking dead blooms out of the altar bouquets, the pastor told me my father was an agnostic, did I know that? It was up to me, he said, to bring my father around, and to get him to stop suing him for my dog getting sick.

"Your dog is an old dog. Old dogs get sick. This is something, as an agnostic, your father just cannot understand, Regine."

"I know," I said.

My father had been standing in the doorway with a box of Neapolitans for me. The box was white cardboard and tied with pink string. His eyes were bright, and there I was, conspiring with another man against him. When I went home that night, with chocolate sprinkles in my teeth, I begged my father not to embarrass me in front of the church with a lawsuit. And my father—my God, did he think I loved Alvater better?—he just went out and sat on the back porch and looked at the humps of earth. Through the wire screen I could hear him sipping from a thermos of ice water.

I think, as I hold my father in my arms, that he could die here. And would I try to give him CPR? Would I put my mouth on his?

"Be good," I tell him, and I hurry back into the church to see if Alvater has arrived. I see a new mug of coffee on the desk. I hear footsteps in the rectory. I wait, anxiously. I turn, and there he is. My God, he looks so old.

"Regine." He hugs me, and he smells of Vaseline and cigarettes. His fingertips, too, I notice, are soft with a film from handling tobacco.

"Thank you for meeting with me," I say, smiling. "My father is in the car."

"How are you?"

"I'm fine. You know, he's very sick."

"I'm glad you're here."

"He's dying, really."

"And how's your mom?" he asks. "I saw her. Once. At the Bingo Night. She doesn't come to services anymore. We miss her at services."

He's the same. Older, but the same. He never listened to me when I was a child, and he's ignoring me now. I remember there was a movie night. The films were mostly claymation depictions of Old Testament happenings. I was rarely allowed to go because they were shown on school nights, and my mother wouldn't want me rambling through the woods to the church in the dark.

"I'll pick you up," the pastor told me once. I was Dustbusting the pew cushions, and he was supervising.

"I really can't go."

"You tell your mom I'll be by," he said, and he waved me off, checked inside the poor box, let the lid down with a clap. And that night, the pastor came to my house. I looked over the banister and saw him standing in my foyer. I wished we'd sprayed Lysol. When he came in, my mother turned more lights on, and I could see the even layer of dust on our wooden endtables. I wished we'd cleaned. I could not believe he'd come. I made my bed, thinking stupidly that he'd want a tour of my room.

"Regine!"

I hurried down the stairs. "Didn't you tell Pastor Alvater you weren't allowed out on school nights?"

"But it's a church thing," I said. "They're showing a movie."

"It's important that she go and socialize with the others, outside of Catechism," Alvater said. My father was sitting up, staring at the pastor and bouncing his knee. My parents never sat so straight on the afghan-covered couch. It was like they were strangers in their own home.

"No offense, man, really, but it's important that she isn't always at that church," my father said. "She's got a science project, real history lessons to review. She needs to spend some time with us, here."

"You're welcome to come, of course. But it's really for the children," Alvater said. "But I'll tell you, if you could spare some juice or a pack of napkins, that'd be fine. We run out of those things quickly."

My mother was standing near the door. She had her hand over rips in the wallpaper, where our dog had once clawed to get out. "Juice?" she asked.

"Yes, we can wait while you pack it up."

My father stood up and pushed past us, nearly knocked my mother off her feet on his way out the door. She regained her balance and leaned against the wallpaper, wiped a white-blonde clump of hair from her forehead and looked apologetically at the pastor.

My father yelled from outside, "He can afford juice! Don't give that bastard anything from out our closets!"

Moving close to my mother, Alvater straightened the shoulder strap of her brassiere, which had fallen off her shoulder. I remember the way she looked at him. There was a certain amount of hope alight in her face, like she was nearer to some true holy figure. If he had had a ring, she might have kissed it. Seeing my mother that way made me uneasy. She looked weak to me. She was nodding at him, though he did not speak.

In the car, Alvater fastened my seatbelt for me, and he smelled the same, I remember: the Vaseline in his hair and the cigarette smoke in his clothes. "The movie tonight's real important for you, in particular," he said. My mother had handed Alvater a ten-dollar bill. We had time before the movie started. We were going to the A&P to buy juice and napkins with it.

He smoked with the windows rolled up and exhaled hard against the windshield. "You're a good girl."

"He drives me to church when it rains," I said. It was cold, but I hadn't thought to bring a jacket. I felt the smoke from his mouth on my arms.

"Your mama's a good woman," he said.

The A&P was very busy. I stayed close to him as we wound our way through the crowd. We pulled a cart out of a long line of carts. I told him a joke, and he laughed at it. He let me stand on the front part of the cart while he pushed it fast. I looked all around, hoping to see Lee or some other kid from the church. I feared seeing my father, who might have been there to reclaim my mother's ten-dollar bill. Or me.

We went up to the customer service desk, and he bought a carton of BelAir 100's with my mother's money. The woman behind the counter knew Alvater and kissed him hello. "Who is this?" she asked.

"This is John Robinson's girl."

Around me, babies shook animal cracker boxes, kids cried for candy bars, people pulled carts out from the long line of carts. And the pastor, well, he looked at me so sadly, like he pitied me. The woman said "Oh," and I wondered if there's been announcements nailed to the church door about my father being an agnostic.

He let me push the cart. We went to the juice aisle and asked me what kind I thought we should get.

"I like Hi-C," I said quietly, thinking of my father.

"So much sugar." He opened the carton of cigarettes and tore open a pack. A man walked by and nodded at Alvater.

"It's a short walk," I said.

"What?" He was reading labels. Juicy Juice. Mott's Brand. "Are you talking about your dad?" He put a can of the A&P brand in the cart and lit himself a cigarette, right there in the aisle.

"I was just saying, it's short. He'd drive me if I asked him to."

He pushed the cart out of my hands and stared down at me. "Your father's got it all mixed up. We both know it. He's a fuck up." The cigarette bounced between his lips, and he laughed a little.

"Okay. Okay. Your dad is a little unbalanced, in need of some spiritual guidance, and this," he said, "we know. Can you agree with me there, at least?"

He grabbed two plastic bottles of Tang and placed them in the cart, staring at me hard. "Well?" The tops of my fingernails were still stinging from the scraping, scraping of the scissor. He sighed and rumpled my hair. He left me standing there between the high walls of candy-colored juice cans and mix packets.

The film that night, blinking and popping on the back of a torn map of the world, depicted the second coming. We sat on metal folding chairs in the back classroom and drank warm Tang. We watched a mother on the ripped white screen. She was baking. She was stirring cake mix in a big glass bowl with a wooden spoon, and then, poof, she vanished, leaving the spoon in motion for a second and then to clink against the side of the bowl.

The narrator of the film said that the believers would, at the very instant of Christ's return, be taken directly into the Kingdom of Heaven, right out of their motions. The nonbelievers, on the other hand, would be left behind in a great war of lords. In the movie, those who chose Satan got 6-6-6 tattooed on their foreheads, got to go to the front of grocery lines, got the best cuts of meat and ate ice cream sundaes all the time. Those who chose Jesus, finally, had to suffer and eat nothing but white rice cooked in rust-colored water until they sufficiently proved themselves righteous.

The movie was not suitable for children. We all bit our lips and looked around at the macaroni art on the walls, at the pictures we'd drawn on recent Sundays, at each other. And then my father appeared in the doorway, walked in front of the projector and blotted out the gruesome images. He lifted me off the folding chair and carried me out to his car, where my coat was waiting and the heat was running. He hugged me and forbade me to go back, and I cried the whole drive. "He told me I should love God more than you," I said. My body racked with the guilt of my confession. "I'm your only child. God's got so many."

So, I haven't been here for many years. I tell Alvater that I've missed him.

"I've missed you, too. Tell me about your life now."

"I'm married. I have two children, Jacob and Kimberly." I pull out their school pictures. Both of them are dressed in black and white school uniforms.

"How are you raising them?" he asks.

"They go to a Christian elementary school. They go to Sunday School." I take back the picture of Jake. "He's really into it. Like I was. He's close with the pastor. Really seems to love church," I tell him. And Jake really does. When I go to pick him up from church basketball, he'll see me waiting in the car, but he won't come over until he's had a chance to personally thank his pastor for a good game. It's like church is the only thing Jake ever talks about. I miss the days when I got such attention from the Lord.

I hook my arm through Alvater's, and we walk into the chapel. There are flowers tacked to the ends of pews. Light is strained through the stained glass, through lions and lambs. It reflects off sterling candelabras in red and blue blots. They've replaced the carpet runner, and there are bright felt banners hanging from the rafters proclaiming "God is Love" and "Christ is Peace," but not one as beautiful and tragic as my old Noah's ark.

"I just want you to give my father communion," I say. "He won't come into the church. He's doing it for me. I think that shows something."

"That shows nothing," Alvater says. We sit down in the front pew and he crosses his legs. His pants are very tight. They bunch around his knees and ride up—I can see his sport socks.

"It's important to me."

"You worry about yourself," he says.

"You won't do it?"

"I told you on the phone that I'd consider it."

"Please."

He looks smug. He thinks of himself as a gatekeeper, I decide. I don't understand how I feel. I'm thinking communion is... what? The quick-fix of a host is... what? If my father dies with a wafer in his belly, will he be assured of life everlasting? Will it be like a nametag slung around his neck, leading him to the right classroom, though he is crying too much to talk?

"It'll just take you a few minutes. Give him communion. Please. He's out in the car."

I wait. Begrudgingly, he accedes.

He goes up to the altar and draws out a dish of hosts. The metal cover clangs against the marble lectern, knocks over a silver candleholder. He shakes his head and blesses the wafers quickly, with a sign of the cross that barely leaves the center of his body. "My heart's not in this," he says. As if that makes a difference. Does it?

We walk out to the car, and my father is sitting upright but dozing. "Hi, Daddy," I say, tapping on the window. He wakes, his mouth open, and it takes a moment for himself to realize who he's looking at. Alvater stands erect with the Eucharist, stone-faced and impatient. I open the car door on my father's side and hug him.

They look at each other. My father opens his mouth, and Alvater says, "It's the body of Christ, do you know that?"

"Yes, sure," my father says. So clearly. His tongue is purplish, and the host is very white. He chews the wafer like a bite of anything and swallows it. He settles his head back against the headrest and pulls the car door shut. Alvater and I are hunkering, looking at him expectantly through the car window—expectantly, like he might spontaneously burst.

But nothing happens. Nothing, I suppose, is so quick-fix as to make him blessed in one swallow. I thought, alternately, that if the wafer disagreed with him, it would be a sign that he was helplessly damned, but nothing happens.

I thank Alvater, and we drive out.

I notice the three crosses again. How strange that the middle one is the only one that's clean. I think that maybe I will drive back at night with a bucket of soapy water and sponge off the left one, the one reserved for those who just don't know. But it is a long way back to my father's hospital, longer to my home. Jake will want to hear if St. John's has a basketball team, and did I see them playing? Were any of the kids better than him? My father brushes at the dog hairs on his knees. Look at those pants, I say, and slip the cardboard nametag around his head.

I lean over and kiss him.

"Look at those great pants," I say. He looks at his pants.

 

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