for Bill Felker
Asa Gaines watched Buttercup emerge from the woods at the edge of the winter-ravaged field. The golden retriever had plunged in after something a few minutes ago. Asa tried not to feel afraid for her. At nine, she might not be able to defend herself as she once had—fiercely, giving as good as she got—but neither could he. Time had diminished them both; he was here to see how much time, if any, remained for him.
IIIIIIIIIIIIUntil today, he’d never returned to this long-abandoned farm. Now, thirty years later, he’d decided he had to do it: season of Lent, time of repentance. Otherwise, he’d be sitting before the woodstove, hearing the wind hiss through empty rooms rather than staring out from beneath the hood of his waterproof wind-breaker, which, so far, was keeping out the slanting rain.
IIIIIIIIIIII“Butter, come.”
IIIIIIIIIIIIThat’s all it took. She loped across the dead meadow, which displayed every shade of brown, rust, and grey. Lowering himself to meet her, Asa’s bursitis-burning knees nearly set him on his ass. But he steadied himself before the dog was on him with paddling front paws, hot breath and wet tongue, panting and whining as if she’d been separated from him for days. He held her long snout in his wrinkled, gloveless hands and massaged her ears.
IIIIIIIIIIII“Glad you can still hunt, old-timer.”
IIIIIIIIIIIIDropping to her belly, she spread her legs out before and behind her. She’d started doing that during walks in the hottest weather, but he didn’t expect to see it now in the final week of February. Nothing to do but hope that she’d stand back up before they both froze. Some days, his housemate had trouble getting out of bed with the arthritis in her back legs, but today the suggestion of spring seemed to have restored her.
IIIIIIIIIIIIHe’d seen signs of equinox as soon as they stepped out-side: green daffodil shoots four inches high, snowdrops beside the driveway. Plus, the robin chorus had begun just before dawn, earliest in the year he’d ever heard it, making him imagine raucous choir monks chanting lauds. For the first time in ages, he imagined himself among the monks’ ranks before dismissing the vision as romantic nostalgia.
IIIIIIIIIIIIHe’d planned to be out here by sunrise. But when he’d seen his mother’s rosary lying on the coffee table where he’d left it before staggering off to bed last night after three glasses of Jameson’s, he’d stirred the ashes, inserted a log into the stove, and collapsed in the rocker. As he warmed up, he recalled discovering the rosary with its silver crucifix and yellow-brown olivewood beads in the bottom drawer of his roll-top desk. He still wrote there—not nearly so prolifically these days, since the market for his brand of spiritual travelogue had dried up. “Poor Man’s Pilgrimage” had been the name of his nationally syndicated newspaper column in the 1980s, a great advertisement for the collections he later published as books, some of which did well enough that he didn’t have to do adjunct college teaching. But now folks took cruises, where everything was done for them. No trekking the Kumano Kodo through the mountains of Japan; no Machu Picchu, Dharamsala, Iona. Unlike pilgrims, spiritual tourists didn’t seem to read; they just spent money and snapped selfies to share on Facebook.
IIIIIIIIIIIIReaching inside his jacket, Asa fingered the rosary in his shirt pocket. He’d found it last Christmas Eve. Unseen since his mother’s death in 2011, the beads gleamed golden in the lamplight when he scooped them up and brought them close to his face. They smelled bitter and dusty. Clutching them to his chest that night, he’d felt a tiny warmth as if from a hot mug of tea. Then he heard a voice: “In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen. Our father who art in heaven, hallowed be thy name.” The barely audible whisper continued through “Hail Mary, full of grace, the Lord is with Thee. Blessed art Thou among women” before halting abruptly.
The voice had been his. His heart had calmed while he’d fingered the beads, recalling the mysteries, as if the last five decades hadn’t happened: leaving seminary in the middle of the night to elope with Genevieve Walker; losing his military deferment; enduring hellish horrors in the jungles of Vietnam; and reading Bertrand Russell’s A Free Man’s Worship, which had burned away any last vestige of Asa’s faith.
IIIIIIIIIIII“Brief and powerless is man’s life,” his philosopher hero wrote. “For man, condemned today to lose his dearest, tomorrow himself to pass through the gate of darkness, it remains only to cherish, ere yet the blow fall, the lofty thoughts that ennoble his little day.”
And where had those lofty thoughts gotten him? He’d lost both of his dearests before he was forty. He would’ve never predicted that his mother’s material legacy would be a cheap rosary. But since discovering it, the prayers the beads engendered took him back to a time in his life when religious faith held a place of power for him. Might faith, in fact, hold that place again; maybe even take him to where he seemed, beyond all hope and belief, to be going today?
IIIIIIIIIIIIGlancing down, he rubbed the soft fur between the dog’s ears. After New Year’s, he’d continued the ritual of returning to his desk late, retrieving the rosary and attempting prayer. Some nights it came, other nights not. Last night had been the latter, and that’s why he’d taken the rosary into the parlor to see if a change of venue might lend the beads voice. They didn’t speak, perhaps silenced by the whiskey.
IIIIIIIIIIIIIt was raining harder now, and his hamstrings were screaming. Putting one hand on the ground for leverage, he lifted himself, listing to the left. Damn this getting old! He patted the sidearm holstered on his belt: the Army .45 that had belonged to his father, Lieutenant Ezra Gaines.
IIIIIIIIIIII“Hope for the best and plan for the worst, right, Butter?” For answer, more of Russell’s words, memorized long ago, came wind-borne: “The individual soul…must struggle alone, with what of courage it can command, against the whole weight of a universe that cares nothing for its hopes and fears.”
IIIIIIIIIIIIRussell’s words that had so inspired him the year after quitting seminary now sounded as grim as the thorns looked on the honey locust before him. Only the feel of Madeleine’s beads (he’d begun calling his Irish Catholic mother by her first name) between his fingers gave him the guts to keep going when he longed to return to his warm stove. He snapped the leash back onto Butter’s collar.
IIIIIIIIIIII“Let’s go, girl.”
IIIIIIIIIIIIShe stood heavily and followed, almost as if she knew where they were going, though she hadn’t been born the last time he was here. Thirty years ago today, he’d parked on the road where a cow path led to the old barn. Where else but to his safe den of iniquity would Ben have gone that day? The school counselor had called to inquire why his eighteen-year-old senior son hadn’t been at school all week.
IIIIIIIIIIII“Did you know he’s being bullied?” she said.
IIIIIIIIIIII“No. In fact, I asked him if he was and he said no.” After talking to the principal—who’d presented no convincing evidence—Asa had chosen to believe his son.
IIIIIIIIIIII“Ben got into a scuffle with Tyler Turner in the cafeteria last Monday,” she continued. “Thankfully, Vice-Principal Keasling broke it up before any damage was done—physically, that is.”
IIIIIIIIIIIIHe heard the italics. “What was the fight about?”
IIIIIIIIIIII“You’ll have to ask him, Mr. Gaines.”
IIIIIIIIIIII“I need to know if I’m to—”
IIIIIIIIIIII“Tyler shouted things about your son and Chad Jeffries.” Asa had heard the two boys giggling behind his son’s closed bedroom door, then silence. But he’d been so grateful Ben had finally found a male friend after the debacle of the Terrible Twin Sisters back in eighth grade that he’d ignored it. He sighed.
IIIIIIIIIIII“And did others hear those things?”
IIIIIIIIIIIISilence on the other end affirmed it. There’d been gossip about Ben and the twins, too. Searching his room back then, Asa had found the note: meet us at the barn. He knew which barn, because he and the boy sheltered there on a hike once. The creaky rafters and dark mangers had enchanted his son. Asa found them
smoking dope and drinking wine. The solution—getting Ben into Carroll Academy—hadn’t been cheap, but it had worked to get him away from the bad influence and gossip.
Hiking uphill was much tougher at seventy-three than at forty-three. His bad hip was getting worse, but he’d be damned if he’d get surgery and possibly lose what mobility he still had. Butter panted beside him. At last man and dog stood facing where the barn had stood, with its ancient weathered walls and missing front door.
IIIIIIIIIIIIHe breathed raggedly, heart roaring. The rain had turned to sleet. All he could make out among the tangled dead Queen Anne’s lace, chickweed, and garlic mustard was the cinderblock foundation. In the late 1970s, Albion College had bought this land, planning to dabble in “sustainable agriculture.” But financial crises had killed the school’s dream, and the 491 acres returned to wilderness attracting all manner of flora and fauna but very few humans. Here, coyote packs roved; there’d even been rumors of bobcat sightings. Realizing that Butter was tugging on the leash, he stooped and ended her confinement.
IIIIIIIIIIII“Stay close now. Don’t want you getting chewed up.”
IIIIIIIIIIIIThe retriever headed to a stand of honeysuckle and began to sniff. When Asa turned back, his vision went black and he nearly fell. Catching himself, he stumbled forward and entered the barn of memory he knew was long-gone, burnt to the ground ten years ago. The bittersweet scent of digested grass swarmed his senses, though he’d known even back then that no beasts had sheltered there for decades. When he’d come that day in 1990, following the counselor’s call, looking for his son, he’d seen beer cans littering the dirt floor, incomprehensible graffiti streaking the back wall. Stepping deeper inside, he’d found himself enwombed in thick, humming darkness. Listening intently, senses tingling, he heard no human sound.
IIIIIIIIIIIIHe’d been turning to walk the quarter mile or so back down the path to the road when he heard the sound a human infant might make before sliding into blessed sleep after supping at the breast. Asa rotated his head thirty degrees to the back-most manger, illuminated by light leaking from the loft’s open door overhead. Nearly blinded for a moment, he squinted until the image before him resolved slowly into naked boy bodies entangled on golden straw.
IIIIIIIIIIII Doing things.
IIIIIIIIIIIIHe looked away quickly and must’ve yelled, for two heads rose into the light. Everything froze: not a movement or sound while the universe waited. Finally he roared.
IIIIIIIIIIII“Get your goddamned fag ass out here.”
IIIIIIIIIIIIHis own father had yelled just such a sentence once—Asa had been only a seventh grader, and the indefinable things he and Lawrence Gooding did in the basement were nothing compared to what he’d just observed. The sentence echoed long enough for Asa to compose his son’s future life if he didn’t cease this evil right this minute—as he, Asa, had, never venturing downstairs again with Lawrence.
IIIIIIIIIIIIWhen at last Ben stood clothed before him, Asa flayed him with language that now, through the grace of God or forgetfulness, he could not recall. His dad’s language: blame and shame, and the unexamined clichés of the culture he’d never questioned nor articulated, until the provocation stood before him. At that time, he’d accepted as easily as he did democracy and capitalism that homo-sexuality was disastrous. Asa had been determined to humiliate the demon out of Ben.
IIIIIIIIIIIIChad Jeffries, dark and sullen, had eventually emerged and stood close behind Ben, arms crossed like swords on his naked chest. His refusal to don more than jeans seemed as much an act of defiance as his twisted mouth. Ben, thin and hunched, stood wavering in the barn’s dim light. Somehow Asa kept his fists from smashing his son’s soft face. Neither boy spoke when Asa stopped for breath, looking from one to the other, waiting for them to say he’d been heard and would be instantly obeyed. Nothing.
IIIIIIIIIIII“Car’s on the road, Ben. Go wait for me. You.” He pointed at Chad. “Stay.”
Head down, his son fled without looking at Chad, who remained in place. Asa found himself cooling a little, until the boy stepped close.
IIIIIIIIIIII“He doesn’t belong to you anymore…Dad.”
IIIIIIIIIIIIAsa shoved the boy so hard that he reeled backward and nearly fell. Catching himself, Chad stood up straight. After staring at Asa for a long moment, he retrieved the Black Sabbath tee shirt from his back pocket, then slowly, sensually, stuck his muscled arms though the holes. Maintaining eye contact through the barn’s swirling dimness, he stuck his curly head through the final slot and unscrolled thin fabric down his bulging pectorals until it covered his tight stomach. A performance that said Fuck you, he’s mine. The little prick had won. For the time being.
IIIIIIIIIIIIAsa turned and left the barn so quickly that he banged his shoulder on the threshold. The pain distracted his thoughts from disaster all the way to the car. He’d found Ben in the back seat, curled into a fetal position and trembling as if he were five years old. Asa let him stay there and drove home in silence.
Butter’s barking wrenched Asa back from the past with a start. He stood quickly, located the sound behind him and moved as fast as hip and knees would allow. In his heated imagination, he saw his best friend facing a coyote, maybe more. Thankfully the sleet had abated. Patting the pistol at his side, he resisted drawing it. Head down, he tore through the brambles, heedless of jacket ripping on thorns. It didn’t take long till he found the dog staring up at him from a pile of crimson feathers. Had she..? No way; Butter’s breed retrieved birds with their soft mouths; they didn’t kill them.
IIIIIIIIIIIIKneeling, he patted the now-silent canine, crooning. It was apparent that a hawk or owl had feasted on a cardinal or—he cringed—a scarlet tanager, though they weren’t due back yet. Still patting the dog’s head with his left hand, he reached with his right and grasped a handful of feathers, imagining them reassembling into that rarer black-winged bird. In his mind’s eye, it flew from his hand and rose into grey sky, a late winter phoenix. And you, Asa Gaines? Who are you?
In the forty or so years following Ben’s death, much of the world’s attitude changed; eventually homosexual became gay, went mainstream. Even the new pope welcomed them into the Church. Asa learned it is not a disease, character flaw, or lifestyle choice requiring de-programming, but innate. A loving God, Asa realized, would not torture his children by corrupting them at the very source of life—sexuality. But in the years immediately following Ben’s death, he believed that God had used his son to punish him for neglecting his family and his faith.
IIIIIIIIIIIIThe day after he’d found the boys naked in the barn, Ben didn’t come home after school. Asa wasn’t too worried. He planned to have a chat soon enough with Chad’s parents, but it could wait. Maybe Ben himself, seeing what hell he’d wrought, would end the relationship. Asa hadn’t yet told his wife what he’d found in the barn; it would mean telling her what he’d called their son, which now appalled him (as did shoving Chad). She’d be home from teaching soon and he would tell her what had happened. Meanwhile, he would find and convince the boy that Asa’s words were meant only to protect him the way his own father’s had protected Asa.
IIIIIIIIIIIIAs for where he might find his son, he had a hunch. Since eighth grade, the barn had been Ben’s only hideout; with or without his partner, he’d go there now to lick his wounds. Asa drove back to the farm, grey sky deepening toward twilight, hoping beyond all hope there wouldn’t be a repeat of yesterday, knowing he couldn’t completely count on himself not to use his fists this time.
Parking at the entrance to the path, he’d only taken a few steps into the gloaming before he made out Ben’s green ten-speed leaning against a tree. He squinted to be sure: only one bike. Thank God. Returning to the car, Asa got his flashlight, which he’d need to retrace his steps later.
IIIIIIIIIIIIAll the way down the path, he composed what he’d say, basically boiling down to: The world won’t let you get by with it—your future will be shit. I will not punish you if you promise to give it up forever.
By the time Asa summited the hill on which the barn sat, he’d gentled a bit. He’d let his boy change schools again, if necessary.
IIIIIIIIIIIIAsa stood at the threshold. Not a sound. But he knew exactly where the boy would hide and stepped forward into the stall’s total darkness, flashlight at his side, giving his son a chance to answer him and avoid being revealed by the harsh light. Odd—he felt a presence in front of him. Had Ben rigged a blanket as some sort of tent to shelter him here for the night? Anger bloomed. Stupid boy.
IIIIIIIIIIII “Ben, I know you’re here. Answer me.”
IIIIIIIIIIIIPointing the flashlight, Asa flipped it on and stared into his son’s face for a full five seconds before it became clear Ben would never speak to him or anyone else again. The face before him, illuminated by the light, appeared to be smiling, the effect of shadows. His son’s body swung slowly, the beam that supported it creaking, barely disturbing the fetid air. As if pushed from behind, Asa fell to his knees.
Back in the present, Asa realized he still held feathers. Opening his hand, he released them. The time it took to receive the preceding memory was the longest by far he’d ever allowed himself to stay in that barn during therapy. Which came much later. For the first fifteen years, he numbed himself with booze, not quitting until he got sick of blackouts after which he couldn’t find his car. After treatment, he spent another ten years as a dry drunk until, five years ago, he got a new AA sponsor. Don Powell, an army vet like himself, spoke in sound bites.
IIIIIIIIIIIIAsa: “How could I have said those awful things to my son?”
IIIIIIIIIIIIDon: “You echoed your generation’s prejudices.”
IIIIIIIIIIII“Why would Ben do something guaranteed to bring him more bullying, more pain?”
IIIIIIIIIIII“Some risks you must take. Like quitting seminary.”
IIIIIIIIIIII“And losing my religion?”
IIIIIIIIIIII“Lose your religion in order to find your faith.”
IIIIIIIIIIII“But why couldn’t my son tell me the truth?”
IIIIIIIIIIII“Many say they want the truth; few can bear it. Truth tellers seldom earn anything but blows.”
IIIIIIIIIIIIWithin two years, the best lay therapist Asa’d ever had was dead of lung cancer. Before they’d attempted Step Five, before Asa admitted his great sin to God, to himself and another human being. Before he found out if he could forgive himself, an extremely doubtful proposition.
IIIIIIIIIIIIAfter Don’s death, Asa started drinking again; now Mom’s rosary had brought him back here to settle accounts. Thunder rumbled for the first time since last summer. The rain poured again, streaming off the parka’s hood and down his shoulders. Letting his head fall back, he exposed his face to the cold onslaught and let himself remember the rest of that day.
After positioning the flashlight on the stall’s stanchion, he’d stood on the wooden crate Ben had kicked to the side. Using his Swiss Army knife, he simultaneously cut the rope with one hand, grasped his son’s corpse with the left, and lowered it gently to the straw where Ben and Chad Jeffries had joined bodies and perhaps souls only twenty-four hours before. Asa’s hands took over, his mind a blank (dissociating, he’d later learn), as he loosened then removed the rope.
IIIIIIIIIIIIHe considered carrying Ben to the car but knew he couldn’t, that he had to involve others, let everyone know how he’d failed his son. Compared to the fact that he’d never be able to make it right, letting others know was nothing. He’d laid out his boy on the straw, made him as presentable as possible, and gone for help.
IIIIIIIIIIIIThe rest had turned out pretty much as he’d thought it would in those first terrible moments. He hadn’t cared what the world thought, with its hollow, meaningless consolations, investigations and inquiries. His marriage ended within two years. Why did it take so long? Because Genny was too kind to believe him when he said it was all his fault, before he wore her down with his
binge drinking, increased absence and depression so bottomless that he felt he was living inside a body bag like those in which dead soldiers were flown home during the war.
It had begun to snow. The world waited while snowflakes as large as gingko leaves drifted serenely down among bare branches. It was now or never.
IIIIIIIIIIIIWithout breaking eye contact with the retriever, Asa flipped open the holster flap at his side and hefted his dad’s old Army .45 into the light. First her, then himself. He hadn’t planned beyond that. Shifting the pistol to his left hand, he reached in with two fingers of his right to tweeze out the two rounds he’d put in his breast pocket earlier. But before he found them, he was instantly back in the barn, witnessing what he’d forgotten. That night he’d sat back on his haunches, holding Ben’s head in his lap, and lifted the rounded noose off his son’s neck. Caught between then and now, it became the perfect shining circle of Madeleine’s rosary.
IIIIIIIIIIIIAfter Asa’d quit seminary, his mother never said a word, though her wanting her son to be a priest was mostly why he’d gone. She’d stood beside him at Ben’s funeral and held his hand, stayed with him for a week after Genny left. During his three-month residential treatment, she wrote him cheerful letters on lilac-scented stationery about her garden and the birds at her feeders, never mentioning where he was or why.
IIIIIIIIIIIIWhen he’d told Don about his mom the saint, his sponsor gazed at him for a long time. Finally, he spoke. “She never made you face anything. She never gave you the chance to ask for forgiveness.”
IIIIIIIIIIIIHe’d wanted to argue. But it was his own stinking thinking that got him drunk. Surrender to someone else until he found a higher power seemed the wiser path. Not today. Asa extricated the two bullets from the tangle in his pocket. In his palm, they shone dull silver in the dimming light. When he closed his hand and shook them, they clicked like beads. Now he saw Madeleine sitting on the side of the bed, his father a blanketed lump behind her, praying softly into the dark. A male voice superimposed from above intoned, “The Universe cares nothing…”
IIIIIIIIIIIIOh, but it did. She did. Madeleine Maloney Gaines was right about so many things, Don had been wrong about his mother, what she’d done and why. She trusted, knew it would take time. Thirty years.
IIIIIIIIIIIITurning abruptly, he hurled the bullets into the weeds, holstered his father’s pistol and refastened the flap. Fingering the rosary in his pocket, he imagined himself on his knees tonight before his desk in the dark. Tomorrow he’d go back on the wagon, maybe even go to a meeting, look for a new sponsor. Maybe even attend Mass.
By the time he and Butter returned to where the old barn had stood, its foundation was invisible, erased by Lenten snow.

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