The Broken Cross, Part 2

By on Sep 12, 2011 in Fiction

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Broken Cross graphic

In the car my mother untied her plastic, transparent rain hat and fluffed her hair. She was a neat dresser, her blouses, skirts, and dress always clean and pressed. Wearing the transparent rain hat, though, made her look older. Sometimes, when I was not with friends, I kidded her about the hat; when she was with my friends and me, I did not like to see my mother wear any dress or coat or hat that made her look like someone’s aunt or grandmother. My father turned down the collar of his suit coat. Looking at me in the rearview mirror, he said, “You won’t have to mow the lawn tomorrow. Grass’ll be too wet.”

“Good,” I said. Then, on the way home I asked, “What was that all about with Dr. Wilson?”

“What do you mean?” Dad said. I saw the upper part of his face in the rearview mirror. His eyes held mine as they had that Saturday morning in the garage. Rain on the windshield, hood, and roof sounded like pebbles on glass and metal. The rain swept by the wipers looked like ribbons.

“What were you talking about? Why’d I have to go outside?”

“Nothing,” he said.

“How come it’s always nothing?” I asked, half-kidding, half-serious.

“It’s not always nothing,” he said. “Some things are not your concern, that’s all. You’ve got more important things to think about this summer.”

“Like what?”

“Lots of things: chores, getting in shape for football…”

He drifted to another topic: he and my mother spending a future weekend in Cape May. I drifted, too. I thought about my newest chore, a part-time job Dad had arranged for me: mowing lawns at Holy Trinity and at the rectory across the street, easy tasks with the church’s power mower. After my lawn-mowing chores, Father Hepplewhite, in black trousers and black short-sleeve shirt rimmed at the neck with a stiff white collar, treated me to lemonade on the rectory’s back porch. His conversation consisted of questions about my upcoming sophomore year, comments about the persistent hot weather, and his thanks for my labor: “You did a nice job. It really makes the yard look nicer.” His tongue clicked against the roof of his mouth, a sound I had not noticed when he performed Sunday services.

“What do you think about heaven, Father?” It was right there, a spur-of-the-moment question, but I didn’t care. 

My question surprised him, so much that he chuckled as he apparently gathered his thoughts. I wished that Joey and Wayne with me to hear Father Hepplewhite’s answer.“Heaven is a beautiful place in our hearts, David,” he began. “It’s a place where you keep all the love you have for friends and family you are close to, including ones who have passed away.

I understood his words but could not visualize them.  “Is heaven where they go when they die?”

He tapped his hand near the pocket on the front of his shirt. “In here, David. In your heart.”

“Do you really believe that?”

He chuckled again. “Yes, I do. Very much.”

“Do you think God can really see us?” I asked him. “You and me and everybody else? Does He really watch over us?”

“In His own way, yes, He does. We can’t see Him watch over us, of course, but perhaps sometimes we can feel His presence.” Once again I realized he was an inch or two taller than I was. At fifteen, though, I was confident that someday I would grow taller than he. “I have to visit someone who is ill, David, but I’m glad you’re interested in these things. Thank you for your questions. We must talk again sometime.”

We shook hands. I thanked him for the lemonade and went on my way. I was not in a hurry to talk again with Father Hepplewhite, and I hoped that God, if He really was omnipotent, could not that day read my heart.


Even though the Sunday School year had ended, I still had to perform my duty as crucifer once a month. My mother had agreed with Father Hepplewhite to schedule acolytes for the summer. She included me on her list.

“No,” I complained the afternoon she walked into the living room and showed me the schedule. I looked away from the paper that announced “David Harper, Crucifer – June 25, 11:00 Morning Prayer” and tried to concentrate on the Phillies — Pirates game on TV — the bottom half of the third, two on, no outs, Phillies at bat. “It’s summer. I’m sleeping in.”

“No you’re not. It’s not going to hurt you to do something for the church once a month.”

She had broken my concentration. Before I realized the impact of the question, I asked, “What’s church done for me?”

She switched off the television and took three steps toward the sofa, where I sat, feet on the coffee table in front of it. When my mother was angry at me, she did not slam doors, she did not throw things, she did not scream and yell. She spoke in a calm but firm voice, as if she was explaining the logical process of solving a problem in algebra. In a carefully modulated voice she asked, “What did you say?”

“What’s it done for me…the church? And what’s it done for you? What do you get out of it?”

“David, how can you ask such things? Where in the world — What have you been thinking about?”

“About a lot of stuff. Church, mostly. I don’t see why I have to go if I don’t want to. I’m not sure about God and heaven and all the other stuff I’m supposed to believe in. I don’t get it.”

Now she seemed to measure the distance between her and the chair behind her. She walked slowly, carefully to the chair, sat down, and combed her hair away from her forehead with her fingers. She lowered her voice and said, “I hope your memory is good right now, because it better be.”

“Why?” I asked, my voice a weak challenge.

“Because Dad and I have made sure that you’ve gone to Sunday School and learned something. Now, I’m not so sure you have. You go to church because you’ve been confirmed. That makes you a member of the church. You go because Dad and I believe it’s important that you take part in the service. You don’t just go to church and sit there and then go home, David. You need to believe in what you can’t see. You need to be a part of things and give back to something that’s helped you.”

My statements and questions had already wounded her. I did not want to hurt her feelings any more, but I was angry because I wanted freedom from schedules and chores and church. I looked away from her and said, “I don’t see how church has helped me. It’s just — I don’t know, Mom. Going to church is a chore, something you and Dad say I have to do. I don’t get anything out of it. It’s a waste of time.”

She looked down at her hands and then quickly stood, grabbed the schedule out of my hand, and walked to the bottom of the stairs. “You’re going to be crucifer next Sunday morning. That’s all there is to it.” She walked up the stairs, her footsteps deliberate and rapid as a ticking clock.

I expected she would inform my father of my sour attitude. She didn’t.


Wearing red cassock and white cotta, I was crucifer at 11 a.m. Morning Prayer that last Sunday in June. I led the senior choir procession and nodded to my parents, who sat near the center aisle in a middle pew on the Epistle side. They did not smile at me. They nodded in return while singing “Holy, Holy, Holy,” the processional hymn. I then took my place in the choir stall directly beside Betty Outerbridge at the organ. I mumbled “Amen” after Father Hepplewhite’s opening prayers and then scanned the congregation from my vantage point. Ed Outerbridge sat in the fourth pew from the back on the Gospel side. Susan, I realized, was not in the choir and not with Ed. He sat beside a woman I did not know but who regularly brought her little girl to Sunday School. The woman wore a dress similar to one my mother called dotted Swiss, and a brimless white hat with a veil over her forehead. The little girl — She looked about six or seven — sat beside her.

For the rest of the service I concentrated on that woman. Who was she? Did Mom and Dad know her? Did Betty? Maybe a friend of Betty and Ed? After I handed the collection plates to the two ushers, I glanced at Betty. She did not look at the mirror. She sat on the organ bench and seemed intent on her hands folded in her lap. As Father Hepplewhite closed his sermon, “Let your hearts so shine that we may see your good works…” Betty mumbled “Oh,” as if she had suddenly awakened from a nap. The air around the choir stalls felt warm, stagnant. I didn’t care about good works. I wanted the service to be over and done with so that I could return the Cross to the Sacristy, get rid of my cassock and cotta, and later meet Joey and Wayne at Halcyon Lake for swimming, hot dogs, soda, and girls.

My parents met me outside the parish hall after the service. My mother frowned as Ed Outerbridge gunned away in a pale blue Ford Fairlane, in the passenger seat the woman in the dotted Swiss dress, between them the little girl. My mother told me that she and Dad would take Betty Outerbridge to lunch and then bring her home.

The stone cross looked smaller without Joey, Wayne, and me standing on it.   

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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.