The Broken Cross

By on Sep 24, 2010 in Fiction

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Sand painting of butterflies on stone

Ed Outerbridge was another father who attended the Morning Prayer service those Sunday mornings. Like a lot of men in Lorrence, Ed was an engineer at an oil refinery along the Delaware River. He and his wife, Betty, Holy Trinity’s junior and senior choir organist, were good friends with my parents. They went out to dinner together once a month. Ed and my father served on Holy Trinity’s vestry, and every Monday night Dad and Ed played poker together with four other men.

I got along with Betty. Her mouth seemed too small for her large teeth — Joey and Wayne called Betty “Horseteeth” behind her back. I laughed at Joey and Wayne ’s joke, but I called her only Mrs. Outerbridge, to her face and behind her back. If my parents had ever learned I had been disrespectful of any adult in any way, I would have been made to apologize in person to him or her; my allowance would have been discontinued for an indeterminate time, depending on the offense; and my house chores would have been increased to hard labor. Therefore, I was polite to Betty Outerbridge and to every adult I encountered.

Whenever I could, though, I avoided Betty Outerbridge. I feared she would invite me to join the Junior Choir. In my point of view, only sissies sang in the Junior Choir. I was not a sissy. I had fought my share of school-yard battles, I had played pick-up touch football and, knowing I would have to endure strong-arms and blocks and tackles, I planned to try out for the high-school football team next fall. To me, bruises were badges. I wanted the recognition bruises would award me.

I experienced a different recognition when I was crucifer once a month at eleven o’clock Morning Prayer and Holy Communion. Dressed in red cassock and white cotta, I felt like a smooth-faced, costumed sissy easy to pick a fight with, easy to subdue. On the other hand, when I carried the maple-handled gold cross and led the Senior Choir and Father Hepplewhite in procession up the center aisle, I was impressed when members of the congregation bowed as I passed by. I knew their gesture was not homage to me but to the cross; I realized, too, that I was the bearer of the object to which they bore witness. In that respect, I felt special.

Another reason I avoided talking with Betty Outerbridge was because I believed she wanted to pair me with Susan, the Outerbridge’s only child. I was not interested in thirteen-year old Susan. Dressed in white socks, polished black shoes, and yellow and pink dresses trimmed in white lace, Susan Outerbridge reminded me of a stuffed, pudgy doll. I did not fantasize about her. I fantasized about girls my age or older, whose mysteries and curves I daydreamed about. In high school and Sunday School, though, those mysteries and curves were hidden by sweaters, blouses, and skirts. Like Joey Wicklund and Wayne Kennemer, and secretly against my parents’ lessons in virtue, I ridiculed Susan when she was not around: “Little Susie Outerbridge. Kind of chunky, not so little.”

I liked Ed Outerbridge. I liked the unbuttoned style of his tan corduroy sport jacket and the loosened knot of his brown and tan necktie. I liked his tan Hush Puppy shoes instead of the tight and polished cordovans my father wore. I liked the casual, good-guy way he greeted Joey and Wayne and me on Sunday mornings and kidded us not to wait until the last minute to go into church.

“Come on, you guys. The Lord awaits us,” Ed urged us as if he was an actor onstage, reciting lines from a play, not words from his heart.

Like Father Hepplewhite and other friends of my parents, Ed had expressed interest in my future. When he and Betty had visited my parents one evening the previous winter, Ed had asked me about my plans for after high school.

“Go into the Navy first,” I’d told him, “then college.”

“Good plan, David,” he’d said. Then, shaking his head, he’d added confidentially, “Make sure you don’t have any regrets. Me, I had no idea at all what I wanted to do after high school. I wish I had. I wish I had done some things differently.”

I was unconcerned why Ed Outerbridge had expressed that personal revelation. Sunday mornings he parked his wine-colored Buick near the corner of Woodholm Avenue and Willowyn Terrace and accompanied his daughter Susan — walking a step or two behind her — to Holy Trinity’s parish hall where, in the choir room, she would change into a black cassock and white cotta with other junior choir members. “See you afterwards, Susan,” Ed would say as the door closed behind her. I didn’t wonder, either, why he, like a father, did not put his hand on Susan’s arm or kiss her before she went inside.

I was also impressed in those days by Ed’s graceful stride. Where my father’s steps were quick, often as brusque as his social and religious opinions, Susan’s father’s strides were casual, assured, as if he were an athlete about to congratulate a teammate or greet an audience of admirers. Nothing seemed to bother Ed Outerbridge; not even going to church on sunny Sunday mornings when the rest of us, given the chance, would have stayed home, slept in… 

But why was Susan a target of our secret ridicule? Her prepubescent, doughy appearance? The way she bobbed her shoulders side to side like a Slinky when she walked? Her turned-down white socks above shiny black flats? Like me, Susan was an only child, and in spite of mocking her I felt an odd affinity toward her: in a parish of many brothers and sisters, Susan and I were singular.

“Hi, David,” Susan greeted me before she loped off to the parish hall.

Sometimes I spoke to her. Sometimes I pretended not to hear her.

Once Susan was safe inside the parish hall, Joey and Wayne chimed in, in tight high voices: “Hi David… Wanna go to the movies with me? Make out in the balcony? I’ll let you

“Shut up,” I said out of the corner of my mouth, looking first at my friends, then at the parish hall, relieved the door was closed.


During 9:30 Morning Prayer, Joey, Wayne, and I occupied the next-to-last pew on the Epistle side. We often ignored Father Hepplewhite’s text.  Joey begged food, his breath reeking of cigarettes: “Got any candy? I skipped breakfast, I’m starved, man.” Wayne, whose father was vice president of a local bank, begged money: “I got no cash. Spot me fifty cents for Collection?” We also whispered about the Phillies’ chances for a pennant. Glancing at the stained-glass window of Christ shepherding sheep, I hoped that God, if He was omnipotent as our Sunday School teacher claimed, was a baseball fan and would forgive us our trespasses.

During readings and prayers, I observed the congregation. Dr. and Mrs. Wilson: Dr. Wilson a history professor at a nearby college and church vestryman with my father; Mrs. Wilson a bicyclist of the streets of Lorrence — her skirt a finger or two above the knees, her pocketbook in the basket attached to her Schwin’s front handlebars. Sometimes I imagined Mrs. Wilson in a black pointed hat and black dress and cape, screeching out, “I’ll get you, my pretty, and your little dog, too!”

Willard Wilson, no relation to the professor: the tallest man in the congregation; a bachelor who lived alone in a Willowyn Terrace house that featured a widow’s walk; a white toy poodle Willard’s only house mate. Joey and Wayne and I sometimes made fun of Willard’s womanish walk and called him “queer” behind his back. My parents greeted Willard if they saw him after a service but did not socialize with him. Riding by Willard Wilson’s house one autumn day, I spied him on the widow’s walk, holding the poodle high in the air as if offering his pet to Heaven. The little dog’s legs jerked for solid security, its whimpers apparently no persuasion that his master save him until Willard saw me stop at the curb across the street. I watched Willard and experienced anxious, immediate eye contact between us. He then cradled the poodle in his arms and waved one of its paws to me. I pushed away and pedaled on. I did not wave back.

People could be cruel, even Willard Wilson, who always blessed himself when he finished reciting the Apostle’s Creed and when he pushed away from the altar railing after taking Communion.

Ed Outerbridge sat in one of the middle pews on the Gospel side and directly in line with a mirror.

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John T. Hitchner was raised in Pitman, New Jersey, graduated from Glassboro State College (now Rowan University) and from Dartmouth College. He has also studied at the University of Bath in the United Kingdom. He presently teaches Creative Writing and Coming of Age in War and Peace at Keene State College, in Keene, New Hampshire. His poetry has been published in several journals, including the Anthology of New England Writers, the Aurorean, Clark Street Review, Tar Wolf Review, Paper Street, and Poet’s Ink. His chapbook, Not Far From Here, was recently published by Scars Publications. His short fiction has appeared in First Class, Lunch Hour Stories, Ginosko, and most recently in Timber Creek Review.