Issue > Fiction
Jason Myers

Jason Myers

Jason Myers  serves as the poetry editor of The EcoTheo Review. His work has appeared in The Paris Review, West Branch, and numerous other journals. A National Poetry Series finalist, he lives with his partner, Allison Grace Myers, outside Austin, Texas, where he works in hospice. This is his first published work of fiction. He is at work on a collection of short stories and a novel set in New Orleans during the first Lent after Katrina.    

Tablets


The Lord said to Moses, "Cut two tablets of stone like the former ones, and I will write on the tablets the words that were on the former ones, which you broke."
– Exodus 34:1

If Sheila had to lead one more group retreat she was going to have a breakdown that would be read about, discussed, and analyzed many ages hence, referred to in shorthand as The Day It Happened. She was road raging before she even got in her old Outback to begin the journey up 75 for a lovely weekend with the latest joiners at St. Paul's. They all seemed like nice people, smart and funny, a few genuinely kind, maybe even generous, but really how many more times could she explain why the order of worship was just so, or the meaning of the Eucharist, to say nothing of listening to story after story about why Greg and I finally decided it was time to join, as though the whole universe should burst into applause that Greg and Pam Tomkins were now members of St. Paul's Episcopal Church. For her first six years in the parish this was her favorite thing, good soul work she called it, and even over the course of the next four or five years, when she found herself droning hymns she once loved and rushing through litanies, a weekend in Blue Ridge was just what she needed to remind herself why she loved God and God's people. But in the last three years she'd gotten divorced after her mother died of esophagal cancer and her best friend had died in a car accident, so no, love was not a word she was using with all that much regularity lately, for God or anyone else.

She knew it was time to take a break, that her cynicism was not a consequence of her parishioners, who were just as deep, vapid, vulnerable and glorious as people anywhere. The sun sprawled, demonic, across eight lanes of highway and even Terry Gross' voice, which usually brought her such calm and delight, sounded like a needy shriek. She found an old cassette of Jackson Browne and put it in the tape deck. She loved tapes, the spool of ribbon felt so much more like what should contain music than a cd or even a record; the iPod her kids (really Doug, the shit) had given her for Christmas, what, five years ago sat in a drawer under a pile of old sermons and cards parishioners had sent after her mother's death.

Well I'm running down the road

tryin' to loosen my load

I've got seven women on my mind

Sheila did have a lot of women on her mind. Lila had started smoking cigarettes. The girl was twelve! When Sheila had been her age, living on her grandparents' farm in southern Pennsylvania, her only vice had been reading too much. "You'll go cross-eyed," her grandmother had warned, though she was just as avid a reader, staying up past midnight to finish her mysteries and romances. Since her mother spent years in and out of recovery, Sheila had been so wary of any possible wrong that she didn't have a drink until her college graduation and didn't have sex until she met Doug.

When they had sat Evan and Lila down to tell them they were separating, they both expected Lila to take it the hardest, despite being three years older. But she simply rolled her eyes, like this was just another annoying thing clueless parents did, and asked if she could go over to Rachel's. It was Evan who sobbed all night, sobbed at the dinner table (why did they think one last family meal was a good idea?), sobbed getting his pajamas on, and would not be consoled by either of them.

The aftermath of the divorce was much like the aftermath of her mother's death, when Sheila gained weight, couldn't sleep, spent too much time working on sermons. Only now there wasn't even the consolation of a good fuck. She remembered their last time, when they'd pulled over to the side of the road near an orchard outside Ellijay. They were close to signing on a cabin when Sheila found the texts from their nanny. At first she didn't know what was more agonizing, the betrayal, or how cliched it seemed. "You've got to be kidding me," Paige said a week before a semi t-boned her Sebring.

When their ghosts started to appear, Paige's and her mother's, Sheila dismissed them as the results of too little sleep. Loss caterwauled her, but she insisted on functioning, no matter how many cups of coffee in the morning and extra Ambien at night it required. Some Sunday mornings in the pulpit she felt her head wobble, the words on the iPad the congregation had given her so she could work on sermons anywhere and upload them to the church's website (nobody stipulated these uses for the gift but her) twitched like bugs. The congregation dissolved into a woolen blur and she would see her mother grating carrots by the old oak-and-iron doors to the narthex. Why carrots? Had she ever seen her preparing carrots, or food of any kind?

Fortunately she rehearsed her sermons enough in the days leading up to worship that she did not lose her place when these episodes occurred. The third time it happened, she must have really lost control for a minute, for five people in the receiving line after the benediction asked if she was okay, and was she sure? If she needed anything, she had their numbers. So she took two weeks off, and spent them in bed watching BBC miniseries on the iPad. Somehow she had expected that the intricacies of costume and elaboration of plots would lead her away from the aches and asperities of her own life, but they only accentuated them. Her triple troubles – divorce, death, orphaning – began to feel like the conceits of a spry and insouciant storyteller, and so rather than sleep or seek comfort in her children, her home, her vocation, she seethed, and began to shout at God.

"You think this is funny, you Fuck?" Even in her blasphemes she was respectful, upper-cased.

"Quite a yarn You're working out! Well, You know what, I'm bored! I'm bored of this litany, this string of woe. You are BORING me. How about a little variation?"

Evan's little pink claw of a hand – he was always walking around with his fingers curled into his palm – had grazed, so softly, her bedroom door. "Mom, who are you talking to?" He peeked his head around the door as he opened it. What a docile – fearful? – and solicitous little boy he was, so much more agreeable and approving than his sister.

"Oh, ha ha, hey sweetie. I was just watching this movie. Do you want to watch it with me?"

"I heard your voice."

"Well, sometimes I like to talk back at movies. Don't you ever do that?"

"You sounded...upset."

"Oh. Well, sometimes I get upset. It's ok to be upset, you know. Like if somebody does something you don't like."

"Was it someone in the movie?"

"The movie?"

"That made you upset."

"Oh. Yeah, sometimes it's characters in a movie or a book. Sometimes it's real people."

"Do I upset you?"

"Oh, sweetie. No."

"Does Lila upset you?"

"Well, I don't like that she's smoking."

"Lila smokes?"

"Well, we probably shouldn't talk about it since she isn't here."

"Does Daddy upset you?"

"You better bel– well, we probably shouldn't talk about that since he isn't here, either."

Once she had soothed Evan and walked him back to his own room, she returned to her bed, weary, depleted. It felt like the very hairs of her head had become transmitters of sorrow and fatigue. As she massaged her scalp and wondered whether to watch something else or take another pill or glass of Pinot Grigio, the fuzzy light that hovered like fog above her iPad grew and morphed into Paige's ghost.

This little tablet, larger than the notebooks she used to keep her diaries and poems in, smaller than the legal pads she wrote her seminary papers and apprentice sermons on, was a vatican, an intricate and secretive city that maintained such elaborate and confounding histories, secular and sacred (often at once), and with the slightest move of her finger and whim of her mind, whole worlds – the whole universe, or what human beings knew of it – emerged, evanescent, glowing from the crystals mined in who-knew-what-country to fabricate the brilliant screen, upon which everything from the most horrific and degrading to the most lovely and inspiring images and sounds could be conjured, genie after genie responding to wish after wish.

She wanted Paige to remain in her life and there she was. For a minute or two the ghost made no sound, then she started to giggle, at first like a teenager, but then the laughter turned macabre, splenetic. Sheila closed her eyes and cupped her ears; the laughs merely crescendoed.

"What are you laughing at?"

"Comfort, comfort my people!" Paige's voice, when she was alive, was always melodious and warm. Dead, she sounded appalling and hostile. She made the words of Isaiah, Sheila's favorite book in the Old Testament, sound like the most vindictive curse.

"Paige, is it really you?" No sooner had she asked the question than the ghost winked and vanished. Sheila pulled up every digital image she had of Paige, inviting the spirit to return. She could never predict what would make the ghosts appear or disappear, and their visitations had been so odd and enigmatic she did not know what to make of them. Though it would pain her, she would have preferred an airing of grievances, a clear attack that she could somehow attempt to right or atone for – anything but these vague and puzzling disturbances.

The following morning she had returned to the church more tired than before she took her mini sabbatical. Colleen, her secretary, told her she looked like she'd stayed awake the whole time she was gone.

"Or as if you'd seen a ghost."

"Ha! Yeah right, Colleen. No, I just need some coffee and I'll be good as new. Thanks for holding down the ship while I was out."

"Why don't you cancel – or at least postpone – the new members' retreat."

"When is that?"

"It's supposed to be this weekend."

"Oh, shit."

She made some calls to see if any of her clergy colleagues might substitute, but no takers. The food would be good, and walks in the woods, around the pond. She had given her talks on the significance of liturgy and the value of communal worship and service so often that she could do it underwater, in the middle of the night, with one hand tied behind her back. So what if she wasn't sure she still believed all the things she said?

Don't confront me with my failures

I had not forgotten them

"These Days" finished playing just as she pulled into the parking lot at Box Elder Farms. There was a pear tree bragging its bounty a few yards from the back door of the house that would be their home for the next two days. Sunlight heralded the green and red urgencies of the fruit and mellowed Sheila's anxiety. She saw Teresa, one of the helpers on the farm, picking, quickly yet with great attention, the choicest pears from the low branches.

"Hola, Teresa. Como estas?"

"Muy bien, gracias, Hermana," she said without looking up from her task.

"Hey there, Sheila!" Cecily, who owned the farm with her husband, Will, sat in a rocking chair on the back porch, sipping sweet tea from a mason jar. They had owned a popular restaurant in Buckhead, and had given it up some years ago to fix up land that had been in Will's family for five or six generations and turned it into a retreat for the same well-to-do folks that used to dine in their fifteen-table converted bungalow. Will was an earnest and effective gardener, but left most of the work on the farm, aside from his herb and flower patches, to Pedro and Teresa and their children, most of them teenagers by now.

"Cecily, it's always good to see you. You always look so relaxed!"

"The country is relaxing. You should get up here more often. It looks like they've been working you to death down there. I remember it and don't miss it."

"I think I will take a nap before our first session."

"Well, you're in your usual room. How about a julep to help you sleep?"

Before she had a chance to decline the offer, Will stepped through the screen door with a tumbler of bourbon, a cowboy hat too small for his head slanted to the left, his cucumber-green eyes glinting with gleeful mischief. He put the glass in Sheila's hand and tipped his hat.

"Sheila, this is just one of our favorite weekends. We always love when you Episcopalians come save us country pagans."

"Ha! Well, I don't know about that. Thanks for the drink. It's great to be here." She felt her face flush and her eyebrows quiver. "I really think I need to lie down before our group gathers at 4."

"Of course, of course. Do you need help getting to your room?" Will held the door open for her.

Sheila hurried through the kitchen, where afternoon snacks and the evening meal were coming together. Cecily would take credit for everything, but it was two of Teresa's daughters who were chopping and whisking. Normally Sheila would stop to visit and offer help, but her stomach was twitchy and her temples ached. She got to the small corner room that she always requested – one window faced a gallant loblolly pine, the other a stream that dawdled through the woods to a pond a few hundred yards southeast in a clearing – and closed the door. Her whole body felt tricked with sweat and worry. She collapsed on the sturdy, four-poster bed. Each room had antiques that had been in Will's or Cecily's family for generations, or picked from nearby markets to look like they had been. The bill that came at the end of these weekends was a reminder that the cost of discipleship was hardly cheap. Sometimes Sheila thought of the families St. Paul's might support by forgoing such extravagances. Sometimes.

She looked at her watch. Almost three hours before she needed to be social, articulate. She thought of Skyping her spiritual advisor, Noel, an Englishman at once severe and silly. He seemed to have read and absorbed nearly all of the medieval theologians and had a way of restoring Sheila through profound or simply unusual questions. Once, before she discovered Doug's infidelities, they had been discussing extramarital affairs; Noel asked, "Do you suppose Christ ever feels a cuckold?"

She pulled out her iPad from one of her bags and her mother materialized, singing "A Mighty Fortress Is Our God" in what struck Sheila as a Jamaican accent. Sheila shoved the tablet under a pillow, but this did not dispel her mother.

"I thought you hated hymns. Stop. Please. Please. Will you just tell me what you want?" Sheila reached out to clutch the ghost, who shimmied over to the window.

"I will sing unto the Lord a new song!"

"Mother. Please, tell me what you want from me."

"Let goods and kindred go!"

"I'm trying! That's what I've been trying to do, but you won't let go of me!"

They had a few more curious rounds of this, Sheila pleading and trying to be direct, her mother responding in scrambles of scripture and Lutheran hymns. Sheila gulped down her drink, the sugary mint and mash a burn and a balm in her throat. She walked over to the window and the ghost vanished. Returning to the bed, she curled up under the comforter and must have fallen asleep, for the next thing she knew there was a rapid, delicate tapping on the door.

"Reverend Vickers?"

Most of the parishioners, even the new ones, called her by her first name. This must be Gretchen, a freshman at Georgia Tech. Sheila stood and walked over to the door but did not open it.

"Reverend Vickers?"

"Yes."

"Are you coming to group?"

"Yes, Gretchen, I'll be there."

"Ok."

"What time is it?"

"4:15."

"Oh, shit. I mean shoot. Sorry. I dozed off and forgot to set an alarm. Let me splash some water on my face and I'll be right there."

A few minutes later she shuffled into the great room. Nine sets of eyes scrutinized her.

"She is risen indeed," Gerry Pickering exclaimed, and everyone laughed.

"I'm so sorry, y'all," Sheila said. "I'm usually punctual. But we have plenty of hours together this weekend, so we'll make up for lost time."

No sooner had she begun to detail what they would be doing over the course of the next two days than Paige's ghost came swooping in from one corner of the room, and Sheila's mother swirled in from the opposite direction. They made no sound, just whirled, and so she was able to ignore them as she invited the group to share what had led them to St. Paul's. Gerry volunteered to go first.

He had kind brown eyes, at odds with his obstreperous voice. He was a lawyer, and Sheila got the sense he was making a case more than telling a story. His first wife had divorced him because he wouldn't take his faith (or hers) seriously, and his second wife wouldn't marry him if he insisted on going to church every Sunday. Now that he was single once again he was free to come and go as he pleased.

In the middle of a sentimental recollection of his mother's prayer life, Sheila's mother started to whoop. "Joining with angels and archangels! Joining with angels and archangels!" her mother screeched. "Let everything that has breath praise the Lord!" Now it was Paige who had some kind of Caribbean accent.

"I'm sorry, I can't do this," Sheila said, and pushed herself out of the chair, and strode out of the room, out of the house.

"Was it something I said?" Gerry asked. Everyone looked about, bewildered. Was this part of the program?

Sheila found herself by the pond. The sky was a habit and a ceremony, clouds rushed over it and sunlight smeared the mallows and lady-slippers at the pond's edge. A finer effulgence spread across the water and lathered the trees. It was resplendent, and unnecessary, and reminded Sheila of everything that claimed her, even the parts she didn't want claimed.

She heard a faint, desperate mewling. She worried it was one or both ghosts tracking her, but as she looked in every direction there was no sign of them. No sign, either, that any of the new members had been troubled enough to come look for her. Oh well, they were called to follow Christ, not their crazy pastor.

"Naranja!" she heard a voice in the distance – one of Teresa's girls?

The mewling intensified and the voice drew closer. Sheila saw a bit of fencing off to the left of the pond and an orange tabby trying to lunge forward. Its rear right leg was caught on a barb, and as she got within a few feet of the poor thing she saw blood dripping where the leg was snagged.

"Naranja!"

"She's over here," Sheila called. She turned and saw a girl running through the woods. Her breath was labored, her caramel skin rosy about the cheeks. Her black hair had the gleam of a just-cut record.

"Is this Naranja?"

The girl nodded.

"What's your name?"

The girl nodded like this, too, was a yes-or-no question. Tears ran down her cheeks as she knelt and tried to help her cat. Sheila patted the cat's head, and stroked the girl's cheek. The girl looked up and smiled at her.

So she did not know how to comfort herself or her family, she had lost touch with her parish, she was in need of an exorcist or some other spirit guide. There was always someone, some creature in the precincts of pain, and her touch, now and then, might give solace.

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