These are stories about Midtown. Aside from these, of course, there could be many others worth telling. But I will tell only these because I saw them happen.
All of these stories are true.
Chapter One: Welcome
It is January of 2005. Tim and Sarah and their kids visit Midtown for the first time. They decide this will be their home church. It is a momentous decision, and calls for some kind of ceremony, or baptism, or anointing. By way of making it official, Jake goes into the fellowship hall and barfs on the floor.
Chapter Two: Spiritual Warfare
Greg Belliveau crawls around on the Red Brick Church kitchen floor with a toolbox. He is taking apart a grease trap under the sink. The grease trap is full and has been festering for fifty years. It is overflowing with unspeakable filth. His tools make clanking noises as he prays or swears under his breath. Other church members are in the building for a cleaning day, and rumors of the grease trap’s horrors have spread among them: It is awful; it is stinky; it is gooey; Greg will never be presentable in public again. Fixing the grease trap is like changing Satan’s diapers.
Chapter Three: The Abyss
Under the sanctuary is a dungeon. Imprisoned there is a terrible monster. His body is made of iron and he weighs a thousand thousand tons. His feet are bolted to the floor as punishment for his evil deeds. Out of his head fat metal tentacles sprawl menacingly in every direction. He awakens and his eyes burn with smoldering rage. He guards his treasures: an industrial sink, asbestos roof shingles, a broken lawn mower, cans of dried paint, cracked plates. Grown men are afraid to go alone to fetch the mop bucket. He is Lord Octopus.
Chapter Four: Leaf Wars
Linda finds some kids playing in the leaves in front of a house on Stanton Street. By the time I walk up, all necessary formalities are completed, and everyone is on familiar enough terms to begin a leaf war.
These kids show no mercy. Handfuls in my hair, in my face. They attack Linda, who exacts revenge, throwing leaves, chasing, yelling. I retaliate against them. I pick up two little boys, one under each arm, and spin around, hoping to drop them disoriented and incapacitated on the ground. They shove leaves down the back of my shirt.
They yell and run and exult.
Somehow Linda gets them all to church. And the next door boys, too.
The next door boys want to see The Rock. I show them upstairs. They make subdued assessments of the coolness.
Downstairs, just before the service, we play some lively music. A girl, who is fourteen and knows more sorrows and burdens than she should, sways in the front row. She gives me a quizzical eye: Is this a good time for dancing?
Yes! Dance! Please!
She grooves a little in her seat, but chickens out. She knows about self-consciousness, and has too many reasons to let sorrow win out over joy.
Chapter Five: Lexi and Pudgy
Down the road and to the right, and down to Chestnut, is a ten-minute walk. All the kids are out today, on porches and and back and forth across the street. They have an agreement with passing cars: everybody ignore each other.
This is where I cross into a different world. They know nothing and care nothing of my life of career and credential and connection and privilege. They do not resent that I can cross in and out, and they must stay in. They welcome my arrival, and downplay my obvious shortcomings, and hang on my sleeves, and make me catch them as they jump off the porch.
But today in the neighborhood, fear.
Fear, because a man, a pedophile or similar species of predatory reptile, tried to abduct a child on this block. He failed but is feared at large. The mothers and aunts all arrange to walk their own kids home, and elicit promises from me that we will not let any of them walk outside after dark.
Lexi jumps off the porch so I can catch her. I catch her and pretend her momentum makes me spin away down the sidewalk. The adrenalin agrees with her so we do it again, three times, four times. Her hair clicks because it is full of beads.
Her sister is called Pudgy but is not. Pudgy is just a newer smaller version of Lexi, and harder to understand. I answer her questions mostly Yes, and sometimes Hmm.
They tell me about the dog who chewed some lady’s arm off. Lexi holds my hand while we walk. As we pass the fence where the dog is, she switches sides, and puts me between her and the fence, and holds my other hand. Her hand is small, and feels like she has been playing in the dirt.
Lexi has a dollar. Pudgy has a hundred dollars. Lexi has five thousand dollars. Pudgy has two hundred million billion dollars. And so on.
In church Lexi has to sit in the musician’s section, next to me. She reads a title from the hymnal: Jesus Loves the Little Children. I can read, she boasts.
Nicely done. He does, and you can.
She volunteers to pray for a complex need which she does not understand, and then covers her face with her hands. Someone out in the pews is thankful for a lung transplant, and to be alive.
I walk them home in the dark. Pudgy worries about dogs and makes me carry her the whole way. Most of the kids are worried about the creep. I tell them that I know some intimidating kung fu poses, and some withering insults too, and all shall be well.
Chapter Six: The Kingdom of God is All Music and Dancing
All the kids are seated on the floor, singing. The Kingdom of God is appearing among us, goes the song. When I ask for volunteers to hold the posters for verse two, six of them shoot their hands up, wide-eyed, mouths in an oooh-shape, sitting up ever higher because it is crucial to get the hand as high as possible in the air. It increases the odds.
Three girls from the neighborhood come in and sit on the floor. They have an air of gloom. They are teenagers, it is true, and gloom would be required of them under the best circumstances. But these kids, they carry some extra sadness. They have a pact, an understanding, that they hang together and bear their sadness together.
The sadness is simply that life is hard and inevitable. (The free imagination of childhood allows escape for a time: for a few years they can imagine and believe that they will not become their absentee fathers and bedraggled mothers. But in the early teens they awaken, and their eyes clear, and they see how the cycle works, and despair.) The three of them don’t raise their hands. They sing maybe the most familiar part of the song, but softly and with eyes off to the side and downward.
Later, around a table, they draw and color. With patience and detail, with talent, they draw beautiful things. They make huge block letter signs and illuminate the letters extravagantly, like monks on a manuscript. One writes a note of friendship to another, and colors it and signs it Holla Atcha Grl.
In the sanctuary Jamie opens a violin case. Inside is a child’s instrument, with tape on the fingerboard to show where to go if you want to be in tune. Ten-year-old Stephanie stands and stares into the case.
She is silent, and listens to instructions about taking care of the violin as though they were words of catechism, or sacrament, or high divine calling. She looks at the violin with holy fear. Her eyes are wide and bright, standing out from her deep brown skin. Her hair is spiked out, pointing backwards, so she always looks like she is zooming along through the air.
Later she shows her friends, and one on them gently reaches out and plucks a string in admiration.
In the kitchen next to the stove a fourteen-year-old girl, one who came in all gloomy, hints that she dances. Her name is Andria. I tell her she should teach all the kids some moves for our song about the Kingdom. She hesitates, and demures. Sarah joins me in the project: Yes, you got the moves, you have to do this, they will love it. And so on.
Finally, she sings one line from the song, skipping her feet syncopatedly and swinging her arms. The Kingdom of God is appearing among us. Skip skip skip.
She is very good. She has energy and style. She tries another line. The Kingdom of God is all music and dancing. Skip skip hop hop swing arms round. She smiles. People egg her on. The Kingdom of God is all color and beauty. Skip swing hop hop.
Julie, a college student, walks up. I used to dance hip hop, she tells the Andria.
Andria turns, and smiles with her mouth and frowns with her brow, and stares Julie down, and says:
Show me your moves.
Chapter Seven: Impression of CJ at the Food Pantry
“Number 57! Take some potatoes. Cut that out unless you want me raising sand! It’ll be Katie bar the door! I need a lahge with a frozen thingie! Have a blest day!”
Chapter Eight: This is My Body, Broken for You
The four wildest boys are clearly not going to make it through communion time. It has only begun and already there is talk of a farting contest. I know something about trying to shush a farting contest during church. It is a losing proposition. Being the serious scolding grown-up only makes everything funnier. Defeated, I take them upstairs to The Rock.
Chris wants to play football against me on the video game machine. He informs me that I am the Steelers. I do not feel equal to this task. What are all these buttons for? He tells me what to push. Bewilderingly, I seem to be winning. I think I am the blue guys. On the next machine, Cory is playing the skateboard game, with a loud soundtrack. He sings along: Waiting for your modern Messiah to take away the hate. Those are the words. He knows them.
The girls get into the nail polish stuff but don’t know quite what it is. Thinking, I suppose, that they are dealing with lip gloss, Stephanie gets glue on her teeth. She makes a face and tries to pick it off.
Tim and I walk all the kids home because it is dark. Outside, we stick Wheat Thins in our mouths like fake teeth. We talk like Billy Bob. We find an old ball hat on the sidewalk. The boys keep sneaking up behind me and putting it on my head. I throw it as high in the air as I can. They run after it. It’s a game of fetch. Pudgy wants to be carried. Easy enough, as she weighs nothing. Whenever anything interesting happens, she screams. My ear rings a little.
Chris challenges me to a wrestling match. He is a stocky boy, almost a teen, but I can just sling him over my shoulder and spin him around until he is discombobulated. The other three wild boys demand equal treatment. Mark wants me to spin him around and then throw him into the bushes. Well, alright then.
We arrive at their houses on Chestnut. Tim and I leave. Chris follows us. He won’t go home.
High five me again. Wrestle me again. Spin me again.
Chapter Nine: Gary
Gary tells stories. They are mostly stories about his heroic deeds. I love these stories, and am coming to believe that some of them may be true.
Gary drove a truck, and to hear him tell it, the truck went roaring across America, devouring the asphalt like a roaring lion. The trailer, clinging on for dear life, bounced and careened like tin cans behind a newlywed car, while the truck made a speedboat wake, a giant sliced V, right through the landscape. He hit a speedbump in North Dakota and was airborne through most of Montana.
There are truck stories, and there are tough guy stories. In the tough guys stories Gary is defending his kids. Someone picks on them or threatens them, and when Gary gets wind of it, it’s time to head for the hills. The stories end with great one-liners. Some fool picks on Gary’s kid. Gary finds out. Gary exacts some street justice. Gary stands over the crumpled, humiliated evil-doer and warns him that next time,
“They find you stankin in the creek, butt-up with flies on.”
Chapter Ten: Unrooted
Steve limps down the stairs to the food. He tells me that he hurt his leg jumping off a train.
Jumping out of the freight car as it rumbled through Springfield. Train didn’t slow. So he jumped at speed and bruised his heel. His triumphal entry was messy and manic.
Steve rides around the country in freight cars. He waits until the trains are moving slowly out of town and jumps aboard. He tells me that he travels for a living. He is an old-school hobo.
There is a rootedness that I thought was universal and necessary in people. Steve doesn’t have it. On summer evenings in my back yard I know a sense of occupying my right place in things. Perhaps the stillness I find on my land at evening he finds only as the freight car, doors flung open, rumbles slowly out of town. He tried on yet another town and it didn’t fit. He says he has had enough of Ohio.
He rode into Springfield because his father is in the Odd Fellows home, and he will visit. But after that, maybe Arizona.
The Chestnut Street boys are wild tonight. We send them home early. Once outside, they attack. They remember my special move, the one where I put them over my shoulder and spin them. Each needs a turn, and another turn, and they argue and fight about turns. I try to spin them so fast that they will be temporarily disoriented and compliant, but they recover faster than I can.
One boy, the wildest, outright assaults me. His name is Chris and he wants to fight. Where his father is, and what his father is, and whether his father is, I know not. Maybe he is in a freight car, rumbling across Arizona. There is a thing that fathers must do for their sons that has not been done for this boy, and he is left with an angry gnawing hunger.
So he takes a swing at me.
If he were taller he could break my glasses or bend my nose. But in the cold, with coats and layers and all, he is mostly harmless, if you keep your wits about you. I give him my standard gentle smackdown, and a few punches around the shoulders, and finish off by whapping him across the back of his buzzcut.
Now Chris wants a piggyback ride wee wee wee all the way home.
Along the way some of the kids stop at a friend’s house and make plans to roller blade. They have one pair and split it. The game is: one boy ride on his right foot and push with the left, and the other do the mirror image. They rumble around us in the dark on the sidewalk.
GK walks with me, his daughter high up on his shoulders. The boys negotiate with him for optimum candy next week.
We want three-foot strips of bubble gum. Yardstick bubble gum. GK looked in the store and couldn’t find it. OK then. We want three-foot Slim Jims.
I ask what kind of meat they use in a three-foot Slim Jim. A giraffe’s tail? Perhaps the thing is a snake, headless and spineless but otherwise whole?
No. Beef. Slim Jims are beef, I am told, with exasperation. Everyone knows that.
Maybe it’s Beefsnake, I say. I bet it’s Beefsnake.
Beef STEAK. Not snake. More exasperation. Big grown up idiot.
They rumble away into the dark, one foot wheeled.
Up on GK’s shoulders, his little girl wonders and exclaims when a motion sensor on a house lights up at our passing, then goes black as we round the corner. Such a thing has never been seen. She wants to live in that house.
She has a real bike now. She is done with training wheels. She is bigger now, and so very exalted on her father’s shoulders, which she rides with no hands, and she is competent on a two-wheeler, and the world is utterly radiant with color and promise, up there on her father’s shoulders.
Chris gets a piggyback ride the last ten yards to his house. There. Done. Like a pushpin in a map, I put him in the right place.
He doesn’t stick. He won’t be rooted. Off he goes again in the dark, unrooted, following us for a while, and rumbling with his friends.
Chapter Eleven: Frank
It took me a long time to understand anything you said. I have to admit that sometimes I answered you with a noncommittal “Mmmmm” when I had no idea what you were talking about. After a lot of practice it got easier. I really enjoyed our conversations over dinner. We often talked about good food, about hot dogs or pie. Everyone in the neighborhood knew and liked you, and called you Little Frank or Shorty. I have a picture of you with your friend Brandon, and I value it.
The last time I saw you was when Tim and I found you that day in your apartment. Lung cancer was advancing and you were retreating. I was worried that perhaps you did not grasp the seriousness of your condition, but it was perfectly clear to you: you had a few months to live, and you were ready to meet God, and the nursing aide who came to help once a day was good looking, so you didn’t mind too much. Then you coughed, and we knew that time was running out.
Sleep well, Little Frank.
Chapter Twelve: I Will Build My Church
Ben installs a new basketball hoop out in the parking lot, but the heat changes some minds, and the kids drift to the cool of the basement. Someone asks if there are art supplies.
Stephanie is drawn to the empty box from the basketball gear. She wants to make a new sign for the Red Brick Church out of it. She asks me to chop off the folds along the edge, leaving her with a perfect piece of clean cardboard, three feet by five.
Now the other kids get involved, and they need to raid the supplies from upstairs: scissors, tape, glitter glue, pens, crayons. I make them promise to put it all back. They promise and mean not a word of it.
Stephanie’s sign, in eccentric lettering, says “Red Brick Church People and 3 Animals”. She asks me to draw some people and animals on paper squares so she can glue them to the cardboard. I draw a fat guy with a combover. She wants him to have a matching wife. I draw a hillbilly lunkhead wearing a ballcap with an extra long bill. He is saying Duh. I draw a lady with Marge Simpson hair saying Grr.
Then I draw myself, which is easy: glasses and nose are the center of gravity, with a beard-rimmed frown below and some unruly hair above. Add a few consternated frowny lines to the forehead and the likeness is uncanny.
DJ wants me to draw him. I worry because I do not know how to draw black people. He insists. I tell him I can only draw goofy faces, so he makes a goofy face with his tongue out. Deep breath and go: actually it’s not bad. DJ loves it and shows it to his friends. He takes it home.
Pudgy gets me to draw a dog. I draw a silly one which she takes and shows to my wife. Pudgy claims she did it herself. Big mistake: Linda knows my cartoon style very well, and calls the bluff. She excels at calling the bluff.
Stephanie glues the pictures onto her cardboard, but wants to work on it more later. It is unfinished. It will remain unfinished. It is a picture of the church, and it is good ecclesiology: most of us are cartoonishly silly, and some are animals. Stephanie does not know the word ecclesiology.
Time to go. Sure enough, they leave all the art supplies for someone else to pick up.
Chapter Thirteen: Some Names I Can Remember
Ray and his parents Bill and Nancy
Trent and Bailey
Karen, affectionate but also insane
Eddie and his dog Chico
Marcel, DJ, Quinn, Mark, Dante, Donnell
Floyd, who brought his guitar
Belinda, who could not afford her medication
Darrin, who suggested that we build a barn
Epilogue: For a Time
People file into the domed sanctuary. The room echoes with conversation. In the front, musicians are practicing. Suddenly all eyes are drawn to an energetic movement in the back of the room. A girl and her mother have come in, the mother slow and worn with care, the girl bursting with kinetic momentum. She charges away from her mother, braids flying, and finds a college girl whom she loves, and throws herself into a forceful embrace.
Disentangled, she runs to her second target, another student and another crash and embrace. Lastly, a slower walk back to her mother.
The sun sinks in the sky and the stained-glass window in the west floods the floor with golden light.
For a time, ordinary things glow. Ordinary people become, for a time, luminous: their hands are flames of fire, their faces a riot of glory.