As Gertrude gazed at Clay in his dress uniform on the dresser, grainy and dead, she thought of war. Vague armies clashed in her mind. She remembered a painting she’d seen once at the museum; Napoleon’s horse reared, his red cape flowing like blood as he cried the charge. Trumpets sounded from the far reaches of her dreams, and Jericho fell, somewhere far away. She didn’t look at the photograph often, though it was always there, beside the gold pocket watch hanging under a glass dome with a grooved wooden base. As soon as she’d opened her eyes some moments earlier, she’d known the date. It was June 1st, a Sunday, the same date and day of the week it had been sixty-seven years earlier when she married Clay Strickland, a year home from the war.
She never knew how to think of Clay in the war and still didn’t. She’d seen all the fanfare footage in the movie theater when she was a girl. She’d seen all the movies that came later, Lord yes, the ones that had stars like John Wayne, the ones that were always on television somewhere, the ones that Clay would watch while screaming “Liars!” from his chair.
Maybe that was why she could never picture him there, in all that mud, smoke, and rubble, bombed out churches in the background. Clay’s behavior had declared it all a falsehood, a lie which she decided she could never know, could never understand, and she shut out the bad things, as you have to when you’ve decided there’s no understanding to be had there.
Today the look at the photograph was obligatory, a ritual of recognition, filled with random images of historical conflict, none of which she connected with, distant paintings behind a velvet rope. Her mind was already elsewhere. It might have been the anniversary of her marriage, but that seemed the ancient past. It was Sunday, and Sunday held its own anticipations for Gertrude since her discovery.
It took her some fifteen minutes to straighten the bed and change into her brown dress with the red, yellow, and white flower pattern. It was the easiest dress to get into that she owned, with it’s zipper on the left side, the easiest direction for her to stretch since she had pulled the muscle on the left side of her torso. The fronts of her thighs were in a state of perpetual ache from the hip to the knee. The doctor explained it to her once, but she’d forgotten and had been embarrassed to ask him about it again. She had a barrage of medication. She assumed the medicine for her legs was included in her array of tablets, capsules, and gel tabs. Still, it was a long journey, dragging the end of the faded blue and white afghan up each side of the bed, leaning over to tuck it beneath the pillows.
She dispensed with hose and dress shoes, slipping on her house shoes as she gripped the foot of the bed. The Lord would just have to understand. She stopped again at the mirrored dresser which supported Clay’s photograph and timepiece, pulling a string of fake pearls from her three-drawered jewelry box. From a different drawer she pulled a set of clip-on earrings, white daisies that matched her dress, and put those on. She scrutinized herself in the mirror and marveled yet again at the image there. For the last few decades she had felt separate from it. Funny how the spirit doesn’t match the body. Ever, really. When she was in her prime it always seemed too young, and now of course, if it weren’t for the tether of pain, she wouldn’t even recognize it at as her own self.
Another glance around the bedroom reminded her that it had been several weeks since she dusted. If only it didn’t mean moving everything. The lace half-doilies that sat on the dresser and chest of drawers had taken on a yellowish tint. Perhaps she could find the energy to do it this week. She left the pang of guilt lingering there on the dresser, hiding behind the photographs of Clay, and Tanya, and Sam. It was seven AM. It was Sunday. It was not a day for thoughts of toil or war.
The smell of lilac and gardenia wafted from the small bathroom across from Gertrude’s bedroom. The hallway was only twelve feet long but it took her a couple minutes to complete her pilgrimage past the black and white family portrait taken in 1953 and the posed history of her progeny that lined the walls. Tanya had hung these up when they moved her into the apartment two years back, some of the photos of the grandchildren even now seemed old. She seemed to remember there were great-grandchildren now. There were no photos of Sam on the wall. Even now, Tanya was bitter. Most likely she was bitter about the fact that he’d left her alone to take care of their mother. She was always selfish that way.
Tanya wanted nothing to do with her mother. This was clear from her visits. She wanted nothing to do with selling the house and getting her into the apartment. Nothing to do with the doctor visits or the retrieval and organization of prescriptions, or the grocery runs. Twice a month she came with refills and would fill Gertrude’s pill organizer with the proper medicines in their proper slots. Sometimes she would clean, but she always seemed especially disgusted about that.
Because it was the first Sunday of the month, Gertrude pulled a box of wheat thins from the cabinet and poured a few into a bowl, setting it on the counter next to the refrigerator. The plain wooden cabinets in this apartment were cheap. They looked fine, she supposed, modern, but they were just a veneer. There was no substance there. She missed her old cabinets despite their layers of paint. She toasted a couple slices of bread and spread some grape jelly on them. She had told Tanya on several occasions that she would like to have some strawberry preserves, but Tanya only brought grape jelly. At least the last time she’d brought the grape juice that Gertrude had asked her to get. Maybe grape was all she could remember. One fruit at a time for Tanya.
She ate the toast at her apartment-sized kitchen table, wooden to match the cabinets. It was of similar quality, but there had been no room here for her dining room table. It had to go in the auction, where so many of the things she loved had been sacrificed to the dowry of death that now dwindled slowly in the bank.
Tanya had forbidden any donations to the church more than ten dollars, had threatened to take power of attorney. She didn’t know. Couldn’t understand any more than she could fathom a genuine feeling of affection for Gertrude.
“Just because you send money doesn’t mean you can buy your way out of a blind eye, Mother. You will have to deal with your conscience some other way.”
Gertrude wasn’t sure what her daughter had meant by that, but then she hadn’t understood or much liked her daughter since she’d been a teenager. She knew the feeling was mutual. Were there great grandchildren? Hadn’t it been the oldest one, Valerie, who’d married? Or had she dreamed that? There were no pictures to tell her. Gertrude finished her toast and made her way to the sink, where she filled the stainless steel tea kettle with water and set it on the apartment sized stove. Everything here was small. She missed her old gas range with the touchy pilot light, the one that had almost killed her.
“You’ll be safer here, Mother. I won’t be accused of negligence.”
No, of course not.
As the coils heated beneath the kettle, Gertrude turned her attention to cleaning her breakfast mess. When she finished and the cozy was back on the toaster she pulled her porcelain teapot and a cup from the cabinet, hanging three bags inside the rim of the pot. They were cheap, generic teabags that said Best Choice in red, block letters on the tags at the end of the strings. She considered adding a fourth bag and decided instead to conserve. She poured a glass of water and took the three pills from the clear plastic slot which said “Sunday AM.”
The Living Room
Gertrude’s apartment was an H. The kitchen and living room stood on opposite sides of the small hallway like the bedroom and bathroom. She shuffled past the front door with the teapot and cup, placing them on a TV tray that sat next to her recliner. Her recliner. She thought it funny that the only chair in which she could now find any comfort was the chair of the man who had caused her so much discomfort. Gertrude often looked for the word, irony, but she never quite found it. Though the chair’s framework had lasted, the upholstery had worn years ago and she had draped a brown afghan over it. Another afghan, striped a crooked red and brown, hung across the back of the couch. Lace doilies on both of the end tables and the coffee table completed the picture of Gertrude’s apartment as a complicated network of knotted strings.
The doilies protected the wood surfaces from the various objects she had placed on these tables, lamps, pictures, a radio. On the coffee table it served as a lacy altar for her King James Bible which she now retrieved and set on the arm of the recliner. The TV tray rested upon crisscrossed metal legs that had lost much their shiny gold painted finish to the dull gray of the aluminum beneath. The surface of the tray was dark with a picture of a cornucopia.
The portable radio was vintage sixties, a rectangular black box with a permanent handle affixed to the top. The bottom two thirds of the front was covered in a silver metal mesh which covered the two speakers. The top third was dark translucent plastic with painted scaled representations of the FM, AM, Weather, and shortwave frequency bands. Two large silver knobs sat at either side of the display. Four black push buttons were aligned on the top, extruding through the black leather case which allowed the listener to choose a frequency band. Gertrude never played with these buttons. The AM button was pressed and she kept the radio tuned to 960 MHz. She turned the dial on the left and the radio clicked to life with Sam Cooke’s “Chain Gang.” It was 7:56. Gertrude poured a cup of tea and settled back into her chair.
Her eyes fell upon the wheeled walker sitting in the corner, unused now for six months. She had needed it for some time after the accident but now she wished it was just gone.
“Just keep it, Mother. You may need it.”
Now it sat there, like a buzzard, patiently waiting.
You are listening to spiritual Sunday morning programming. And now it’s time for the American Ministry Gospel Hour on WFAK-AM, Pendleton.
And now the familiar music and Gertrude’s excitement began to rise. It was the arrival of friends at the door, the anticipation of shared stories, and of course, the Other.
She had never been a religious person, but when she found herself laid up for so long she had discovered the Sunday morning shows and found a curious hope in them that she had never known before. Two of the shows were live broadcasts of local churches and she began to see her neighbors in those broadcasts, began to get to know them and look forward to their company. It wasn’t until she had healed that she had discovered the Other, hidden beneath the airwaves, during the local Methodist service.
It was during a moment of silent prayer that she became aware of it for the first time. It had always been there, a sound beneath all the other sounds. At first she noticed the hiss, steady and unwavering. But as her attention was drawn toward it, she began to realize there was another part to it, a high whine. She thought perhaps a note on the musical scale. It pulled her in, even further, attuning her ear to the highest sensitivities, where she finally noticed the whistle. Oscillating as regularly as a sine wave, it was a tiny delicate sound, a melody to the background. Three sounds in one, she thought, the Father, the Son, and the Holy Ghost. There was something otherworldly about it. When heard as a whole, it sounded like entwining, repeating whispers that she could almost hear and she so focused on them that she didn’t even hear the preacher call for the hymn.
... How sweet the sound...
The line hit Gertrude’s stomach like the descent of a roller coaster, and she had recoiled, rising from her chair as fast as her recently invalid state would allow, snapping off the radio as quickly as possible. She had set to busying herself, cleaning her teapot, trying to put it out of her mind, but it wouldn’t let her go. Over and over again, though she tried not to, she wondered if she might have heard the voice of God or the whispers of His angels.
Every Sunday from that day forward she listened, but she could only identify that particular sound during the Methodist ceremonies. And so she examined it, listening intently for it, trying to understand what it was saying to her. Then, during the silence of the communion service one Sunday, something remarkable happened. From out of the whirling vortex of whispers, one of them became suddenly clear.
“You will be forgiven. You too must forgive.”
Again she recoiled. She wanted to think that it sprang from the radio but could not shake the impression that it had arisen from deep within herself. It did not feel like her own voice and yet it felt like the cover had been removed from the well of her own soul, leaving an echo she never knew was there. It felt important. She began to weep. She didn’t know why. She didn’t understand what she needed to be forgiven for and yet she knew down to her very marrow that the voice was true.
That was when the donations to the church began.
And now here’s our host, the Reverend Doctor Timothy Greenfield...
Gertrude did not care as much for the American Ministry Gospel Hour. It wasn’t even a local show. It came out of Alabama. She thought it could sometimes be too mean-spirited, though it was easy to see what a learned man Reverend Greenfield was, what with his carefully prepared arguments and obvious knowledge of the scripture. He quoted different scriptures too fast, and most of the time she had trouble even keeping up with him as she flipped through her copy of the Good Book.
Last week I had occasion to read the book Restoring My Faith, by Pentecostal preacher Martin Miller and while it was a perfectly fine exploration of faith, I couldn’t help but notice that in Chapter Three, Miller claims to have found his inspiration when he heard the voice of God speaking to him in the ruins of a run-down country house. Now, I do not wish to impugn the man’s claims, but it started me wondering. Can anybody hear the voice of God?
Gertrude began to panic inside a little. She was familiar with this tone. It was easy to hear that he believed the answer was no. She tried to follow his logic as he began with John 14:16-18, but soon his verses got ahead of her as he skipped back and forth through the Book of John like a bee unable to choose a blossom.
And so, as we can clearly see, only the apostles were qualified to hear the voice of the Holy Spirit.
Gertrude could not clearly see that at all, but this was her first religious argument and she felt helpless to Reverend Greenfield’s judgment. He had just proven that she was a fraud but she was at a loss to explain how he had done that or why she didn’t believe him. There was something screwy in that argument, she thought, but she couldn’t say what.
The Holy Spirit can speak to all people, but ONLY through His Word, only through the scriptures.
She was relieved when it was over and the local Catholic service began. She would decide whether or not she heard the voice of God, not some firebrand from Birmingham.
During the Catholic service, she took comfort in the female singer’s reliably sharp delivery. It was as it was every week, and even though the airwaves did not seem imbued with the same mystical frequency as the Methodist broadcast, she would listen for it nonetheless in the moments of silent prayer that fell between the rounds of musical pageantry. But here there was only hiss and whine, no wavering whistle, no swirling whispers or mystical third to elevate the silence into the divine. Still, she retrieved her bowl of Wheat Thins and a glass of grape juice and when the time came for the communion ceremony, Gertrude did her best with solo transubstantiation.
Behold the Lamb of God. Beholdeth him who taketh away the sins of the world.
“You will be forgiven. You too must forgive.”
She’d pondered those words many times and did again now as the radio station began playing a half hour of instrumental hymns which would lead in to the live broadcast from Pendleton United Methodist Church. She tried to shut the Reverend Greenfield from her mind, dismissing him as a close-minded, mean-spirited man, and moved her thoughts into an equally uncomfortable area as the air around her was filled with the soft sounds of forgiveness, floating on strings and piano notes.
Her mind drifted to Tanya. Such a disappointment the girl had turned out to be. Gertrude wondered if she could ever forgive her for all the hateful behavior, for selling off her life and leaving her in this box, alone, waiting for death. Such unjustified hatred her daughter had for her, and none of it was her fault. The girl should put the blame where it rightfully belongs. The anger swelled inside her again. Forgiveness would be difficult.
And Samuel, well, he had always been so sensitive. Could she forgive him his weakness? Lord knows it wasn’t his fault either.
Perhaps she was being called upon to forgive herself for ever marrying a man like Clay Strickland. He would likely burn in hell for what he did to that boy in the name of making a man out of him.
Good Morning, church!
Reverend Tanner’s voice brightened her mood instantly and she automatically said “Good Morning!” along with the rest of the congregation, some seven or so miles away. She could still see the brilliant smile that had once greeted her at her door.
“I am so sorry to call unannounced,” he had said, “but I told Carol at church that I just had to meet the wonderful woman who was making such generous donations to our radio broadcast.”
Gertrude had blushed and invited him to come in. He visited for around twenty minutes and she tried more than once to tell him why she valued his church’s broadcast.
“It’s like—sometimes—I can feel the Lord—almost hear Him speaking to me- through the radio—I wish I could explain better.”
“No need, sweet Gertrude, I understand completely. The power of our Savior’s love knows no bounds and cannot be made small, no matter how it reaches you. I am so pleased that we can help bring you comfort.”
“But—it’s like He’s—”
“I truly hope you can come in person to a service someday soon, Gertrude,” he said, pulling his jacket off the couch as he stood. “And I want you to know how much your donations are appreciated. I’ll try to make it back and see you again soon.”
She hadn’t seen him since, but he had mentioned her on the radio several times and sent his blessings.
Let us pray.
And now it came as the silence descended on the congregation, the sound of Grace, and Gertrude honed in with all her faculties. There again as always was the trinity of sound and the layers of whispers coiling around each other in an elaborate macramé. Somewhere inside there was an answer to her life. With all her attention she tried to pull one of the strings, to extricate one from all the others and, for a moment, she thought she was catching hold of something that was trying to emerge.
Lord, we know we are imperfect creatures in your sight...
She almost caught herself cursing Reverend Tanner for speaking too soon. That would be the only silent prayer. Now she could only wait on the communion ceremony. Sometimes she wished the organist would not play during the offering.
Reverend Tanner’s sermon today left her more impatient than usual, but finally she readied her Wheat Thins and grape juice, taking part in communion for the second time that morning.
This do in remembrance of Me...
Gertrude tried to imagine the cracker and juice as the body and the blood, tried to feel it coursing through her body, giving her strength enough to hear the word of the Lord. And then she listened, we-you-we-you-we-you-we-you-shhhhhhhhhhh, and then there! Was that a word? Yes, yes, listen harder! Surely God will speak today—listen! Happy? was that the word she heard? She drifted to and fro with the sound, dancing with it, perilously close to the cliff of dreams. Happy. She had only to find it again and there it was like the tide, repeating like the patterns in her doilies, eternal. She could not make out the words which followed, but she had the rhythm now. Happy... happy... happy... Yes, she wanted to be happy. She followed, waiting for the rest to come clear.
Happy anniversary, Dollface.
Her entire body jerked and the teacup flew out of her hands, spilling mercifully cool tea into her lap and falling to the tightly piled beige carpet, the handle breaking off of the side. Gertrude, her eyes suddenly wide with a jolt of panic and confusion, pushed herself from the chair and looked down at herself.
“Oh,” she said. And then, with more despair, “Oh, my cup.”
She bent over slowly, retrieving the cup and handle. Now her set was no longer complete. She carried the broken cup into the kitchen, threw it away, and tried to wipe the shame from her dress.
C.M. Chapman has appeared in Cheat River Review, Limestone, Dark Mountain in the U.K., and the anthology, So It Goes: A Tribute to Kurt Vonnegut. He is the author of the chapbook, Music and Blood, from Latham House Press, and his novel-in-stories, Suicidal Gods, is tentatively scheduled for release by Unsolicited Press in October of 2019. He is a graduate of the low-residency MFA program at West Virginia Wesleyan College, where he serves as an Adjunct Professor of English.