The Broken Cross

By on Feb 12, 2017 in Fiction

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Cross made of pebbles on green lawn


In wintry daylight and darkness, images of Ed Outerbridge pummeling the stone cross followed me like the shadow of an unwanted friend. The irony was that, in spite of all the embarrassment and hurt he had brought to family and friends, I still liked the man. He had not physically or spiritually hurt me. He had not sought revenge upon me. According to my mother and father and the Church, Ed Outerbridge had betrayed laws of Christian morality, but those laws, I believed, did not directly touch me. Those laws seemed like things—papers and toys and books—I didn’t need, didn’t think about as I lived my life. I had more important things to do than think about what somebody centuries ago said we ought to think and how I should live my life. What had touched me about Ed Outerbridge were his easy stride and confident air about everything, even the ferocious force with which he brought the hammer down upon the stone cross, shards of it like cast-off jewels in the snow.

As a witness, I had been called upon to verify his actions. After I had given my explanation, one of the officers, pointing to the chunks of the cross in the snow, had asked Ed, “You really did this?”

“Indeed I did,” he’d replied.

“Mind telling me why?”

Ed had nodded as if pleased with his accomplishment. He’d jutted his chin at the officer and said, “‘Cause I felt like it.”

The man from across the street had pointed to Ed and said, “He’s crazy. Anybody do a thing like this, he oughta be locked up.”

After the second policeman had said I could go home, Ed had motioned me over to him. He’d put his arm around my shoulders and turned his back to the policemen. “Do me a favor?” he’d asked, his breath beery and minty. Without waiting for my response, he’d expressed what I later revealed to Susan. Finished, he’d brought his face within inches of mine and said, “Please?”

“I will,” I replied, but I did not, could not, look him in the face. I was in awe and fear of what he had done and what he might still do.

As I’d walked away he’d called out to me, “Thank Dad for talking to the good Father here. I know he tried. See you in the funny papers, Father.”

Father Hepplewhite, his hands in the pockets of his overcoat, had stared at the rubble in the snow.


“I did try,” my father admitted after Betty and Susan had left our house that night. “‘I’m sorry, Phil,’ Father Hepplewhite told me, ‘but I cannot abide what that man committed against his family and church.’ Those were his exact words. Ed could not accept them.”

“He doesn’t want to,” my mother said. “He doesn’t care about Church rules or any kind of rules. He’s a criminal, if you ask me.”

On our way home from school the next afternoon, Joey Wicklund and I approached Holy Trinity. I had described Ed Outerbridge’s actions, the police taking him away, and Father Hepplewhite’s decision. Now we looked at the rubble on the lawn. The stones looked like the mound of a grave.

Joey listened, swore, and then he said, “Guess we won’t be standing there anymore.”

“Guess not,” I replied, but there was more that I could not put into words.

The rubble was gone the next day when we walked home. Only a long, ragged outline remained in the snow.

 That night my mother and father told me the church had no plans to replace the stone cross.


Jacqueline Stiles put her house up for sale the first week of January. It would be sold the following April. By then she and Ed and her daughter had already moved to a town closer to the refinery where Ed worked.

My thoughts continued to drift during church services. I looked at the middle pew on the Gospel side, where Ed had sat with Jacqueline Stiles and her daughter. I looked at the mirror and saw faces of other mothers and fathers, including my parents, and I wondered about their lives. My mother and father’s marriage was good. But what about the marriages of other parents? Were they as happy as they appeared, or were they only pretending to be happy? Were they in church because they sincerely wanted to be, or were they here out of habit?  I looked at the gold cross on the altar and the carved wooden plaques of the Stations of the Cross on the walls along the outside aisles. When I carried the wood and metal cross during the Processional and Recessional, I thought of the story of the crucifixion, and then I remembered the sound of Ed Outerbridge’s hammer as it had cut into stone. That sound was no story passed down through the ages; no gospel interpreted through hundreds and hundreds of years. There was no pretending in Ed’s actions. They were real, in a way heroic. And when Father Hepplewhite pronounced benedictions about grace and love and fellowship, I wondered if he gave any thought at all to Ed. Did Hepplewhite forgive “that man” his trespasses? Did God, if there was a God?

I kept these questions to myself. I didn’t want sermons for answers.

I only marveled at the strength in Ed Outerbridge’s arms, the force of blunt metal upon stones. There was something almost heroic in the act of crushing and breaking that cross… Where had the rubble been taken? Where were all those stones now?

“Some trash heap somewhere,” was Wayne Kennemer’s answer.

“Dumped in the Delaware,” was Joey’s conclusion.

Before Morning Prayer, my friends and I now waited on the Willowyn Terrace sidewalk in front of the church. Behind us, the colors of the stained-glass Good Shepherd looked dull, as if separate pieces of glass had not been cleaned in many years. Joey still smoked, cupped his hand around his cigarette and turned away when he saw an adult who might inform his parents of his nicotine habit. 

And what did Betty and Susan Outerbridge think when they walked by where the cross once lay? Did they glance at the empty place, or did they ignore it?

“Come on, you guys, the Lord awaits us,” Ed Outerbridge had once beckoned to us, his hand on the church’s black, wrought-iron door handle.

We still shuffled in and sat in the next-to-last pew—“our” pew—on the Epistle side.

But that force in his arms and hands: enough to destroy; enough to—I couldn’t find words to describe my admiration for that force and strength. It could do things I could not do, because I was afraid to do them.

And again, as I sat with my friends in the next-to-last pew from the back of the church, I looked at the mirror and wondered about the thoughts of people reflected there. What did Betty Outerbridge see and think about when she saw the same faces I saw?


And again, as I sat with my friends in the next-to-last pew from the back of the church, I looked at the mirror and wondered about the thoughts of people reflected there. What did Betty Outerbridge see and think about when she saw the same faces I saw?

“Would you wait, please?” Her question sounded like the beginning of a serious complaint.

“What?” I asked.

She walked beside me now. She swung her coat over her shoulders but left it unbuttoned. It was brown, the buttons the size of poker chips. Her small breasts pressed against the inner lining of the coat. She slipped her hands in the pockets. Her ankle-high boots had gray fur around the tops; they reminded me of boots worn by older women of the church. I wanted to walk ahead of her, but she said, “Just slow down. I want to tell you something, but I’m not sure how.” Susan wore lipstick. I remembered that I used to think of her as a chunky doll. She did not look like a chunky doll anymore.

She took a deep breath and slowly let it out. “There, I think I’m ready.”

We reached the stairs that led to the parish hall exit. “What do you want?” I asked and started up the stairs.

She took another breath, not as deep as her first. “You’re a nice guy, David. I just wanna tell you. You’re a nice guy. There.”

“Thanks,” I replied without ridicule or sarcasm and said no more until we reached the lobby. Over two months ago, her father had stepped aside for me here when I went to open the door, his eyes glazed from too much beer. Betty had turned her head and looked at the floor, and Susan had wiped tears from her eyes.

Now she stood beside me. “You’re not mad at me?” she asked.

“No. Why would I be mad at you?” I reached for the door handle, but I did not push it.

She looked down at the floor. “I dunno. I didn’t know what you’d say or what you’d do. I thought you’d just say I’m crazy and walk away.”

I took my hand off of the door handle. “You’re not crazy.” Susan’s eyes welled with tears. “Honest,” I said, “you’re not crazy.”

“My dad is,” she said. “What he did to the cross—everything—it was crazy.”

“He’ll be all right,” I said. I put my hand on the door handle again. “Deep down, he’s a nice guy.” I let go of the door handle. “How’s he doing?” I asked her.

She shrugged. “He’s okay… He calls me every week.” More hopeful, she added, “He said he’ll try to get over to see me soon.”

I want to see himI want to talk to him, I considered telling Susan. I did not care if someone would see Ed Outerbridge and me together and spread the news, the gossip, to my parents: Did you know Ed Outerbridge was in town. I saw him with David…

So what? It would be my business, nobody else’s.

“I like your dad,” I said to Susan. “Tell him I said hello. Tell him I’d like to talk with him sometime.”

She nodded and wiped the tears from her face. “Thanks for talking to me, David,” she said.

There you are! I wondered where you’d gone off to. Hello, David.”

Betty Outerbridge started up the stairs. She took two quick, precise steps, and then Susan yelled at her: “Mom, I told you not to come up too soon! Go back down! Please?”

“What? Excuse me.” Betty walked back down the stairs and turned the corner to the hallway. I heard her take three steps and then stop.

“I’ve got to get home,” I said and pushed open the door.

“See you,” said Susan.

“See you,” I said.

The snow-covered lawn seemed smooth and wide without the stone cross. I paused on the sidewalk in front of where it once lay. I imagined it whole. I saw my friends and I gathered on it. And then I walked across the snow to where the cross had rested. I crouched and sifted through the snow until I felt slivers of stone—gray, silver, purple, smooth with sharp edges. I chose three, one of each color, and brushed the snow from them and slipped them into my jacket pocket.

On the way home I dipped my hand into the pocket and, imagining the gray, silver, and purple, I held each stone between my thumb and index finger. I’m not sure why I held them—maybe to sense something I did not yet know about them. Maybe to try to prove something to myself. 

In my bedroom I placed each sliver of the broken cross on my dresser and studied them, their smooth surfaces and shadings. Something had created them. What force?

I remembered the punishment of Ed Outerbridge’s sledge hammer upon the stones. I remembered the mirror—the “eye of God”—in which Betty Outerbridge saw the congregation. Both hammer and mirror were forces, yet neither the hammer nor the mirror had brought about any good. People and things became hurt and broken by those forces.

Dad had said that there were no plans for the church to replace the stone cross. He had smiled and told me, “You and your buddies will have to wait on the sidewalk just like everybody else.”

If I go back, I had thought. If.

Now I looked again at the slivers of stones. “Just pieces,” I whispered, “Just ordinary stones.”

Then I thought, But pieces of a force.


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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.