The Broken Cross

By on Feb 12, 2017 in Fiction

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Cross made of pebbles on green lawn

Father Hepplewhite now repeated the same words over Susan and Betty and placed a wafer in each of their hands.

What was Susan thinking? About the dry, papery taste of the wafer? Had she tried to pray while she had folded her hands?

Susan sniffed. I glanced at her again. Tears slid down her cheek. She wiped them away and waited for the wine. I had ridiculed her behind her back last summer. I had said mean things to her. I knew that I should apologize to her. Maybe I would, someday, but I would not pray for forgiveness.

“The Blood of our Lord Jesus Christ, which was shed for thee,” Father Hepplewhite spoke over me, “preserve thy body and soul unto everlasting life. Drink this in remembrance that Christ’s Blood was shed for thee, and be thankful.”

Before I had taken my very first Communion when I was twelve, my father had told me the wine was sherry. It had a sharp, warm taste that first time (“Good stuff,” Joey and Wayne and I had agreed). Since then, I had looked forward to sipping Communion sherry. It had, as it did now, that same bite, but nothing more. No spiritual wonder, no divine presence. Just a pleasant warmth in my stomach.

Did Susan feel any divine presence? Probably nothing. Same as me. Nothing at all.

I pushed away from the railing. Susan and Betty did the same. I let them precede me to the organ and choir stalls. Betty played an interlude. Susan sat beside her mother, folded her hands and kept her head down. Instead of joining the choir for the recessional, she stayed beside her mother.


After Father Hepplewhite’s benediction, I hung my cassock and cotta in the parish hall’s choir room closet. Snow ticked against the room’s windows. When I stood on tip-toes, I could see it lay like grains of sand on the lawn.

As I started up the stairs to the parish hall exit, I heard two voices in the lobby—a man and woman—arguing, accusing, and then another voice, a girl’s, crying. Betty and Ed Outerbridge and Susan looked down the stairs at me.

I paused, bowed my head, and continued up the stairs.

“Ed, for God’s sake—” Betty said and abruptly stopped.

“Hi, David, how ya’ doin’?” Ed greeted me.

“Okay,” I replied. Without looking at either of them, I moved toward the door.

Ed stepped aside and patted me on the shoulder. “Nice job today, David… Saw ya’ from the back.” His breath smelled beery. “Tell Mom and Dad sorry I don’t live up to their high moral standards but I appreciatevery much appreciate—their attempt to set me straight.”

He had caught me off-guard. I nodded, pushed the door open and stepped outside. The sidewalk was a film of snow.

“Ed, will you please leave?” Betty demanded. “Susan, go downstairs now.”

“All I want to do is tell her I’m sorry, damn it!” Ed shouted.

The parish hall door closed behind me. On the Willowyn Terrace sidewalk, members of the congregation turned up their collars and looked at the sky as they talked to each other. Some of them glanced toward me and the parish hall, their words, not their facial expressions, muted by car engines starting and tires and chains slapping snow.

Shut the hell up, I wanted to tell these people. You got nothing better to do than stand around and talk about something you don’t know a damn thing about?

Snow felt like cold sand on my face as I started home. Nothing, I thought. Not a damn thing.

Who could I trust to tell me the truth about the eye of God and His power? Not Father Hepplewhite, not even my mother and father. No one.

“Did you talk to Ed this morning?” I asked my father when I got home.

He sat forward in the living room chair where he often read and watched TV. The Sunday paper lay in a neat fold at his feet. He clasped his hands between his knees. “He wants to marry Jacqueline Stiles in Holy Trinity, and he wanted me to speak for them… plead their case to Father Hepplewhite. I told him I’d do what I could, but I doubted it would make any difference. And,” he paused, “I told him he’d crossed the line one too many times.”

“More than once,” my mother added. She came into the living room from the kitchen, dialed Betty Outerbridge, and confirmed where and when she would meet Betty and Susan for lunch. “I’m taking the car. I’ll be careful.” Before she went out the door, she looked back at us and said, “That man’s not worth discussing any more.”

My father sat back in his chair. His tone seemed calm when he said, “Your mother’s not mad at you and me. She’s upset with Ed and what he’s done to Betty and Susan and everybody else who was friends with him.”

“Do you still like him?” I asked.

“I think it’s terrible what he’s done to his family, and I’ve lost a lot of respect for him, but—Yes, I still like him. There’s still a good man in there somewhere,” my father said.

“You going to help him? You should, Dad. He needs your help. He’s probably sorry for what he did, but he needs your help.”

My father leaned forward again. “Anything I say won’t be of much help.”


“Ed broke the rules—of marriage and the Church. He betrayed his family and friends. Like it or not, the Church doesn’t recognize divorce.”

“That’s stupid,” I said.

“Maybe. Maybe the rules will change someday, but not today and not tomorrow. If Ed wants to get married in a church, he’ll have to go somewhere else.”

“Las Vegas?” I said, remembering Wayne ’s recommendation.

It caught Dad off-guard. He shook his head dismissively. In a softer voice he said, “Look at it this way, David: you can’t hurt people who like you and love you and then still expect favors from them.”

“He didn’t hurt me,” I said. “He did something wrong, but he didn’t do it to me.”

“That doesn’t make it right,” Dad said.


After lunch, my father walked to the Holy Trinity rectory, and I walked to Joey Wicklund’s house. Joey, Wayne, and I worked on answers to study questions for Julius Caesar while we munched hot dogs and chips, drank root beer, and watched the Bears maul the Eagles 34–14. “They’re done,” Wayne said of our favorite football team. “They’re cooked.”

For some reason, Wayne’s remark made me wonder if my father had persuaded Father Hepplewhite to change his mind. Probably not, and I laughed to myself as I imagined Father Hepplewhite, dressed in a hooded black robe, directing servants to immerse Ed Outerbridge, arms tied behind his back, in a bubbling caldron. In my fantasy, Hepplewhite stood somber, a thin, slight smile on his face as he watched Ed suffer. As quickly as I imagined that scene, though, I banished it. In having that fantasy, I had betrayed Ed. He had always treated me as a friend. I should defend him as my father was attempting to do this very minute. But how could I accomplish that?  

“My dad’s talking to Hepplewhite about Ed Outerbridge,” I said to Joey and Wayne after we reviewed for the test. I explained the favor Ed had asked of my father.

“Good luck with that,” Wayne said.

We sat on the rug in Joey’s den, our English textbook, three-ring notebooks, a bowl of pretzels in front of us, root beers beside us. On the table-model TV behind Joey, two Philadelphia Eagles play-by-play announcers reviewed the team’s sad performance.

Wayne munched on a couple pretzels. “Like I told you guys,” he said, “he oughta take Stiles to Vegas, marry her there, get it over with, then go play the slots.”

Joey sniffed. He gulped some root beer, belched, and then said, “Maybe he’ll get lucky.”

“He already got lucky,” Wayne commented.

We snickered at that.

I then asked my friends a question I had never asked them before: “Do you guys believe in God?”

“When did you become so philosophical, Harper?” Wayne said. He sat up and folded his arms, his back against a wing-back, blue slip-covered chair.

“Harper’s always been philosophical,” Joey told him. “Don’t you remember the stuff he asked Mr. Newk? About where God lived an’ all?”

I went along with Joey’s kidding, and then I said, “Look, you guys: we go to Sunday School, but what the heck do we learn there? Same stuff we’ve heard in church all our life. We’re supposed to believe in God. But what is He? Where is He? What’s the proof?”

Wayne nodded. “I dunno, but I do believe we’re gonna have this test tomorrow. If we don’t have a snow day.”

“You’re right,” I said. “You don’t know for sure about God, and I sure as hell don’t know for sure. What about you?” I asked Joey.

Me neither. My parents’ve said I gotta go to church till I’m eighteen. After that, I make up my own mind.”

“That’s what I’m trying to do,” I told them. “Make up my own mind.”

“Let us know what you find out,” Wayne said.

“Never mind,” I said. “Thanks for all your help.”

“Anytime,” Joey said.


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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.