I once believed in the beauty of God.
In the parking lot at St. Mary’s, the Catholic school I attended from kindergarten through the first half of fourth grade, a thick yellow line ran down the middle of the parking lot, dividing us kids at recess. Boys on one side, girls—my friends—on the opposite. Including my best friend Lauren. We stood at the line and talked to each other. We twirled down the line. The pleats of her plaid skirt fanning out, the bottom of my coat doing the same. We stopped and curtsied to each other. A recess monitor spotted us and blew the whistle hung around her neck. She pushed her way toward us through the crowd of kids and yelled at us to separate.
“Go play with the boys,” the monitor scolded me.
The boys played basketball or touch football in their button-downs and ties. Some of them huddled against the side of the building, playing various card games. I wasn’t good at figuring out the rules.
My back pressed into the rough texture of the brick on the side of the building. I’d recently discovered a copy of Bunnicula in the school library. The cover—drawn in pencil, hashmarks crossing the white moon in the top left corner, and the rabbit, with it’s red eyes and vampire teeth, looking right at me, the hint of a garden in the shadows behind it—fascinated me. The spooky mood. The hint of things hidden. It would have been perfect reading for the overcast day—but they didn’t let us bring books to recess.
At the far end of the parking lot was a small field. A split-rail fence separated the asphalt from the green grass on the other side. The bulky vertical slats were black with rot. More of a decorative warning than a structure that would keep anyone out of that area. The clouds moved. I felt so alone. And then three beams of sunlight poked through the clouds. They almost touched the green grass below. The edges of the clouds where the sunlight broke through were bright, glowing. I’d never seen anything like this. I thought: this is God.
Let us pray.
I wanted to be a priest. I practiced sermons in the living room, dragging the octangular-shaped side table across the plush carpet, away from the wall, to turn it into my pulpit. I stacked blue encyclopedias from the family room onto the glass table top, but not so many that it might crack the glass. The pulpit needed height without too much weight. As I stacked the last couple, I held my breath so I could hear if something was about to break. Dr. Spock’s Baby and Childcare stood in as my Bible because we didn’t own one. Subject matter didn’t matter. What mattered was that the rust color of the cover reminded me of the Bibles at school, and the bright blue box around the title on the spine made it seem more special. What mattered was how the spine crackled as it opened to the exact middle of the book.
The father, the son, and the holy ghost.
I made the sign of the cross over the open book. It didn’t matter what words I said; I was more interested in practicing the stern yet musical tone of voice, the open palms facing up toward the ceiling, the pauses—-an imitation of the priests I’d seen at church. I glanced down at the book. Past the books, past the glass, I saw the remnants of baby powder trapped in the corners of the table’s legs.
My sister and I had a baby powder fight. We doused in each other in it. Laughed through the fog it created. We seemed to realize at the same time that the powder wasn’t contained to just us. It coated the carpet and the tables. We stopped immediately. We vacuumed the carpet. We took wet cloths and wiped it from the basket-weave pattern on the bottom part of the coffee and end tables. But we couldn’t get it all in time. We couldn’t hide what we had done to our mother’s furniture. She said she couldn’t trust us again.
Lord, have mercy.
Second grade. I received the J. C. Award. The Jesus Christ Award. The award meant that I, at seven years old, best represented the attributes of Jesus. And not just in my class or grade, but in the entirety of St. Mary’s Elementary School. To be picked for this was exciting and confusing. Why me? What did I do to be picked? The announcement day had been a big deal with students, whispering about how they wanted their name called over the PA at the end of that day. I remember being given a yellow certificate that had my name written in purple ink. My mother made me go around to the neighbor’s on each side of us to show it to them. This award being a sign I was moving in the right direction to be a priest.
Third grade. Being an altar boy granted me access to the church outside usual operating hours. I felt a unity there. I felt special. I entered the sacristy, the room behind the altar, where robes for the boys and the priests were kept, along with all of the supplies needed for the service. It smelled thick with frankincense. The white marble walls were braided with brown, beige, and white veins. The one window, set high enough that no one could see in, allowed only a few beams of sunlight to barge in.
I fought to get my beige linen robe on over the sleeves of my white button-down, which strained at the buttons. This robe had been loose a few months ago, but now it barely wrapped around me. I kept trying to pull it, as if fabric might magically stretch. I hoped the brown rope-like belt would keep it closed, but I felt the fabric slipping away. Footsteps clicked, clicked, clicked on the title on the other side of the door. I’d wasted too much time. I’d be scolded for being behind.
Later that night, after church, after I helped clean the table and the dishes, I went to my room. My parents stayed in the kitchen.
A few minutes later, my mother came up the stairs. She cried as she walked down the hallway to her bedroom. “He’s trying to make me feel crazy,” she said.
I gripped the frame of my bedroom door. I watched. I listened.
She disappeared into her room. Shut the door. The floor groaned as my father crossed across the kitchen. The crack of a beer can.
I hadn’t noticed the weather in the house had changed until my mother came out of the kitchen. Their fights usually crashed and rolled throughout the house. Not this one. This one had been quiet, isolated, and felt more dangerous.
Fourth grade. I refused to go back to St. Mary’s. My parents took turns trying to pull me out of bed. I held onto the banister of my headboard as hard as I could. They each gave up, and then my knees would hit the ground and I’d scramble back into my bed. After all those years spent wanting to be there, wanting to be a priest, I felt that going back was unsafe. Even the thought of going back there made me afraid. Why? What changed? I don’t know.
The why, the whatever that changed, is locked away, outside the bounds of my memory. A fog. I can’t see it. Maybe I don’t want to. Maybe the fog is a protection.
Thanks be to God.
A full moon hovered over the Kirtland Cemetery. A magical combination. It made some of the gravestones bright in its blue light. The others were hidden in the shadows beneath the tall, thick trees. My father drove us away from his parents’s house, toward home. I sat alone in the back seat. The road empty. The car smelled of burnt coffee. The hum of the motor the only sound as we passed through the intersection of Route 306 and Euclid-Chardon Road.
One turn to the right, and we would have driven past 8671 Euclid-Chardon Road. The Lundgren house. This is 1985, and the Lundgrens have only been in Kirtland for a year. It would be another two before they move onto that property. I didn’t know to fear what was down that road yet.
At the moment, I was more afraid of who was in the car with me. My father hadn’t spoken to me since I refused to go back to St. Mary’s.
“Heathen,” my grandfather had hissed at me during dinner.
I knelt on the vinyl seat to look out the back window at the moon and cemetery behind me. I rested my elbows on the back ledge and clasped my hands together.
I prayed to the moon.
I prayed that I didn’t grow up to be like the men in my family.
I repeated my prayer until we turned the bend and the moon disappeared behind the interwoven tree fingers. I hoped the moon could answer what God would not.
Bruce Owens Grimm has published essays in The Rumpus, The Kenyon Review online, Ninth Letter, The Poetry Foundation’s Harriet Blog, Older Queer Voices, Queen Mob’s Teahouse, and elsewhere. He has attended residencies and workshops at The Fine Arts Work Center in Provincetown, Vermont Studio Center, the Virginia Center for the Creative Arts (VCCA), and he received a Lambda Literary Residency fellowship to attend The Sundress Academy of the Arts residency. He holds an MFA in Creative Writing from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. More information can be found at www.briankornell.com.
Read earlier installments of CULTLAND right here.