The Bench – A little short fiction for the Feast of the Transfiguration

[Disclaimer: I literally have no idea what this might have to do with the Feast of the Transfiguration, except that the a painting of the Transfiguration inspired me to write it].

The old bell of Saint Barnabas’ Church rang out the Angelus as Father Neal walked down the front stairs of the rectory. Neal had been at the Saint Barnabas’ for several years, and he liked the church and the neighborhood well enough, but somewhere along the way, he simply lost the wonder. These days he devoted most of his energy to maintaining the fragile façade of his once passionate faith.

As he rounded the corner, he spotted a woman who appeared to him to be homeless. Her hair was a bit unkempt and her clothes were dirty and disheveled. She was seated on the sidewalk bench next to the church holding an old backpack that he assumed carried all of her worldly possessions. The sight of her made him uncomfortable. He wasn’t in the mood to be hit up for cash, but as he tried to manufacture a reason to cross the street, she spotted him.

“Young man, come sit with me.”

The invitation really angered Neal. Not only did he not want to be asked for money, he sure was not in the mood to have a full conversation. And besides, he thought, who did this woman think she was? He was complete stranger who didn’t even…

He paused.

He looked at his reflection in a passing shop window and remembered that he had on his clerical collar. It annoyed him how vulnerable that made him to random conversations with complete strangers. He walked over, begrudgingly.

“Sit right here,” she said, patting the weathered wooden bench next to her.

He sat down. Actually, he sulked. He took a deep breath, adjusted his posture, and put on his façade. “Good evening. Isn’t this weather so –“

“You don’t have to pretend with me, Father. I’ve seen you walking around here for a few months and, to be honest, I’ve seen more joy in your graveyard than in your face.”

Neal sat quietly. He felt an awkward mixture of embarrassment and relief that someone had really seen him. His carefully constructed façade was a passive aggressive cry for help, a sign for someone to notice him. He had spent the last few years feeling increasingly invisible and isolated. Priesthood can do that. Priests are taught to be invisible, to become like a piece of furniture in the parish parlor. Sometimes that type of formation actually works.

“It’s okay, sugar. You don’t have to say anything. I just wanted you to come and sit a spell. You look so busy all the time. I just don’t know how you ministers do it.”

Neal took a deep breath and mumbled, “some of us don’t.” The old woman sat quietly. He continued. “Many of us know what we should believe and what we should do, but it all gets lost somehow. We don’t mean to lose it. We try so hard to keep it, but it just slips away like sand between your fingers. One day you wake up and it’s all just… gone.”

They both sat quietly. Cars and bicycles whizzed busily by on the narrow street in front of them. They heard the distant sound of children playing in the nearby park. The sun hung low in the evening sky, peaking just above the row of brownstones across from the church. Even though he lived and worked in the neighborhood, Neal hadn’t spent much time just sitting outdoors for years.

“It’s amazing, isn’t it?” the old woman sighed.

“What’s that?”

“This neighborhood. I grew up here. Went to school a few blocks over. I remember walking past this church on the way to the park every Saturday morning. I remember how those bells would just ring and ring, though I never quite knew why. I moved away for a few years, but I am glad I am back. It hasn’t changed much, and that’s just fine with me.”

“I guess I just never quite noticed it”, Neal replied.

Just then he noticed Celia, a member of his parish, turning the lights off in her diner just down the block. She was hugging a family and handing them a plastic bag filled with leftover food. He knew that she owned a diner, but he’d never actually been to it. She had invited him several times, but he always had an excuse not to come. Jared, the parish sexton, was walking down the street carrying a basketball with a couple of neighborhood teenagers. They were high-fiving each other and absolutely drenched in sweat. Neal wondered who had won the game, then he wondered why that mattered. Kelly, a mainstay at the small midweek Eucharist, leaned out of their window to water a colorful array of geraniums in a small window box. The pop of color against the aged stone was stunning.

“Well, shug, I guess I’d better be going.”

“Already? Can I offer you some water? Something to eat? A place to sleep?”

“A place to – Oh, you think I am homeless,” she said with a bit of laughter.

Neal was more embarrassed than before. “I, I’m, I’m so sorry,” he stammered.

“Ah, it’s okay. I was once. It was hard, but I learned a lot. One of the things I learned was how much we wear ourselves out on things that don’t matter all that much all the while missing out on the things that do. I started gardening when I finally got an apartment because it reminded me to stop and pay attention.” She chuckled and looked down at her dirty sweatshirt. “That’s why I look like this.” She opened her backpack. “These are my gardening tools. I run the community garden down the block. Come see me sometime.”

“I will. Thank you, Miss…”

“Jeanine. My name’s Jeanine, but most people around here just call me Gigi.”

“Gigi, it is. God bless you, Gigi.

“Thank you. And God bless you, Father.”

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