The Broken Cross

By on Feb 12, 2017 in Fiction

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Cross made of pebbles on green lawn

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 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.


Air currents in our house that summer shifted from mild to anxious, not because of disputes between my parents but because of differences of opinion between my mother and me and because of change in the Outerbridges’ lives. One evening around ten o’clock when I listened to the Phillies–Cubs ball game, my bedroom door cracked open a couple inches, I heard my parents come up the stairs. Their conversation blurred until my mother said, “Betty could spit nails… To think that Ed could sit there in church… Susan is heartbroken, poor kid.”

I opened my door. “What happened?” I asked.

They explained. Betty Outerbridge had “thrown Ed” out of the house. He was now living with another woman, Jacqueline Stiles… the same woman he had sat with in church.

I closed my bedroom door. Little Susan Outerbridge, I thought. “Hi David,” she had greeted me Sunday mornings, wearing stupid little girl dresses and stupid little girl white socks and black shoes. I had turned away from her. Now I felt like a coward for not acknowledging her.

“There’s always two sides to a situation like this,” I overheard my father say to my mother.

“But he has no right humiliating his family,” she replied. “It’s sad. Two daughters, both with absent fathers now.”


On a Sunday in mid-July I was crucifer again for 11 a.m. Morning Prayer. As I led the Senior Choir’s processional hymn of “I Sing a Song of the Saints of God” up the center aisle, I glanced toward the middle pews on the Gospel side of the congregation. Ed Outerbridge and Jacqueline Stiles stood together, her arm draped around the shoulders of her daughter, and shared a hymnal. The little girl’s brown hair fell in ringlets over the white collar of her dress.

As I passed the pew where they sat, Ed skirted a look in my direction. Without pausing in singing, he bowed and nodded toward the Cross.

During the service I sat in my usual place, the choir stall beside Betty. I could see most of the congregation on the Gospel side, including Ed Outerbridge and Jacqueline Stiles, who sat together, their arms touching, two rows in front of my parents. During the sermon, the little girl whispered to her mother. Jacqueline Stiles held her index finger to her mouth. She then took the little girl by the hand and walked her out of the pew and up the side aisle and through the inside doors to the parish hall. They returned a few minutes later.

My parents watched them leave and return as their heels tamped the hardwood floor. Some people looked toward me, but I knew I was not the subject of their interest. 

I wondered: How often during the service did Betty Outerbridge look at faces reflected in the mirror?

What was it like for a man to leave his home?  Would he still talk to his friends, his wife? His daughter? Were their friends still his friends?


As summer continued, my mother occasionally met Betty Outerbridge for lunch. I did not know if my father had talked with Ed about “the situation,” as my parents referred to the Outerbridge separation and its repercussions. My parents’ days at work, their plans to spend a week in Cape May in August, my chores done and undone highlighted dinner table conversation. Except extended silences, the summer was like any other.

As we cleared the table after dinner one evening, my mother suggested she and my father meet Betty and Professor and Mrs. Wilson for dinner soon. “Some place out of town, where Betty doesn’t have to worry about someone seeing her and talking about her. I’ve already cleared it with her and the Wilsons,” my mother said.

Dad agreed. 

“Want to join us?” she asked me.

“No…” Then: “How’s Susan doing?”

My mother stopped running water in the sink. She turned to me and said, “Betty says she’s doing okay. She’s torn, poor kid. She loves her dad but hates him for what he’s doing: living with someone else, making a darn fool of himself, if you ask me.” She paused and then said, “That’s nice of you to think about Susan.”

I pushed in my chair.

“Are you sure you don’t want to come with us for dinner?” my father asked.

“Yeah, I’m sure,” I said. I was not interested in watching TV that night. Maybe I would listen to the Phillies–Pirates, maybe I’d call Joey and Wayne and ask if they wanted to meet me at a new miniature golf course that had opened near Halcyon Lake. Before I went up to my room, I asked my mother and father, “You two are all right, aren’t you?”

They looked at each other and, surprised, smiled as if they had suddenly become aware of an unknown. “We’re fine,” Dad said.

At night they kept their bedroom door closed. Their voices behind the door were like shadows that appeared then vanished beyond windows.                 

What would Ed Outerbridge do if he met me on the street? I wondered. What would he say to me?

My answer came the next time I mowed the lawn at Holy Trinity.


Sweat slid down both sides of my face on this day, the air humidity as heavy as the power mower I pushed across the grass. A day for Joey and Wayne and I to swim and check out girls at Halcyon Lake, if we could yank Wayne away from the TV.

Joey would always prod him, “Come on, Kennemer: girls in bathing suits or those stupid soaps and quiz shows? With Harper and me, there’s no choice.”

Wayne always sided with Joey and me.

Now, I recognized the red pick-up truck when it swung to the curb. I had mowed a swath along the sidewalk from the parish hall, past the stone cross, to the street. Ed Outerbridge jumped out of the truck’s cab and walked toward me, hands deep in the front pockets of his denim jeans. The truck’s motor idled high. In the passenger seat sat Jacqueline Stiles, her daughter on her lap. The little girl hid her face from me against her mother’s shoulder. Jacqueline Stiles gave me a weak smile and then kissed her daughter’s hair.

“Too hot of a day for you to be workin’, David,” Ed said over the mower’s throaty buzz.

I pressed my right foot to connect the metal finger with the battery to shut off the engine. Immediately, the whir of the truck’s engine seemed to press against my chest.

“How ya’ doin’?” Ed asked.

“All right,” I replied. I wiped my arm across the side of my head and forehead.

“How does God like the way you’re taking care of His lawn?”

I shrugged and said, “Haven’t heard from Him.”

“Ha! Good one, David. Neither have I, but that may change.” He looked back at the truck and then at the wide lawn in front of the parish hall. “Look,” he said in a lower voice, “you probably know my situation. I don’t want to put you between a rock and a hard place, but I’m taking Jacqueline and Jenny to the Poconos, just for a week. A little vacation. We need somebody to mow her lawn, check on the house, feed the cat. Jackie’s got a power mower like this one, a few years older, but it works. Think you could help me out, take care of things? I’ll be glad to pay you.”

“Sure,” I said.

“You sure it’s all right? I don’t want to—” He waved his right hand, palm open, in front of his chest.

“It’s okay, I’ll do it.”

“Good. I’ll drop off the house key to you later. Cat food’ll be on the kitchen counter, mower’s in the garage, gas tank’s filled. Thanks a lot, David,” Ed said and, like a coach, patted me twice on the arm and walked back to the truck, his stride still assured.

He waved to me, then kissed Jacqueline Stiles as he put the truck in gear and pulled away. She bowed her head as he kissed her, the little girl now between them like a stuffed toy.


“I’m not going to tell you to call him back and tell him you won’t do it,” my mother said.

I had waited until after dinner that night to tell my parents of my verbal contract with Ed. I sat at the kitchen table while they dried dishes and put them in the cupboards. 

“You’ve already made up your mind,” she continued, “but as far as I’m concerned, the whole thing stinks.” She punctuated ‘stinks’ by slapping a dishtowel on the counter.

“He put you in an awkward position, and it wasn’t fair,” my father added.

“It’s only for a few days,” I reasoned with them.

Hands on his hips, Dad said, “That’s not the point. Ed knew what he was doing. He knew you probably wouldn’t say no.”

“Are you still friends with him?” I asked him, not the first time in my life I had ever challenged my father.

His answer immediate: “A friend doesn’t take advantage of another friend, David,” he said.

It sounded like a Sunday School theme, but it made sense. He was right. I was young and wanted to make my own decisions. The one I had made was with a man who had always been friendly to me and who had done me no harm. I would live by my decision.

“I’m not going to back out of it,” I told them.

My mother swung a cabinet door shut so that wood slammed metal and wood.

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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.