Despite the normal Sunday morning chaos of getting his young family ready for church, Tom Smith could not shake the vision of his dream the night before.
Death had been sitting in a rickety aluminum lawn chair in the corner of his bedroom — the spitting image, oddly, of Sacha Baron Cohen as his character in the movie The Dictator, except for some reason he was speaking Spanish. Next to Death had stood Jim Carrey as the Riddler.
Jim Carrey? Tom wondered — not for the first time — about his sanity as he pulled a pair of absurdly small dress pants onto his gurgling 18-month-old son Billy.
In the dream, the Riddler had pulled out a large black gun from his jacket and pointed it at Tom’s head, the barrel shaking as the Riddler convulsed with laughter.
Back in reality, Tom’s son stuck a spit-covered finger up Tom’s nose. Tom automatically wiped his nose on his own dress shirt sleeve.
During the dream, looking down the barrel of that gun, Tom had felt the same gut-freezing fear of death that had haunted him over the past couple of years. It was the same terror that kept him awake for hours last night before he finally drifted off to sleep.
Tom jumped at the sound of his rambunctious toddler shooting him with his finger. Billy erupted in giggles at his father’s reaction. Tom gave the kid an automatic tickle, then spun the child around on his lap to put on his shoes.
As he tied Billy’s laces, Tom reflected again on the dream and the fear it had caused.
Again Tom jumped, and again Billy exploded into giggles. This time the source was Amy, Tom’s wife, who was standing at the door.
“We’re running late!” she half-shouted as she turned toward their bedroom. Tom watched her walk away, half-dressed in her Sunday best and pulsating cool girl sexiness — athletic and graceful.
Even more than the sexy vibe, Tom loved Amy’s goofy and sometimes cutting sense of humor — dulled slightly by her new-found religion, but there nonetheless — and her sharp intellect and stubborn determination. Unfortunately, her zealousness sometimes felt a little holier-than-thou, and that was grating.
“C’mon c’mon c’mon c’mon!” Amy was shouting, heading down the stairs of the modest tri-level home.
Tom gave Billy a weary look, and Billy gave Tom another slimy finger up the nose. Tom smiled. “OK bud,” he said, wiping his face with the other sleeve. “C’mon.”
With Billy in one arm, Tom pushed open the plastic and Plexiglas storm door at the front of his house, then turned around and propped it open with his backside as he used the other hand to lock the front door. The February morning air cut through his light jacket immediately.
“Cold!” Billy exclaimed.
“Yeah, bud,” Tom replied. Amy was already in the bullet-shaped minivan in the driveway, the engine running, waiting for the boys. Tom could hear her muffled voice hurrying them along. Tom half ran, bouncing Billy every step. As they reached the van, Billy pointed back toward the house.
“Too! Too!” Willy shouted, his face showing panic.
“What?” Tom couldn’t decipher the code.
“His shoe!” Amy yelled, voice still muffled. “His shoe fell off!”
Tom looked back, and there was boy’s shoe in the thick grass of their front yard, halfway back to the house.
“OK, OK,” Tom said, looking around for where he could put Billy while he retrieved the shoe. He pulled open the driver’s door of the van and plopped Billy in the seat sideways, then partially closed the door to keep in the heat.
“Hurry!” Amy shouted again, only partially muffled now.
Tom hustled back to the van holding the shoe by a shoestring. A step short of the car door, the string slipped his grip and the shoe landed on the driveway.
“Hang on!” Tom called out, bending to get the shoe. At that moment, Billy decided to help his dad by opening the driver’s door, kicking it with both feet as hard as he could.
Tom’s forehead, six inches from the edge of the door as he bent for the shoe, bore the full brunt of the impact. A bright white light burst in his brain, and Tom crumpled.
From somewhere nearby, Amy was shouting.
“Tom! Tom! Oh, good Lord, Tom, are you all right?!” Amy’s voice cut through the haze in his head.
Tom opened his eyes. He was folded awkwardly next to the van, laying on the gravel driveway with his head halfway underneath the car. The pointy rocks hurt his scalp, but that was nothing compared to the throbbing from where the door had struck him, just above the right eye. A gentle finger expedition confirmed the source of the pain — a significant and rising bump. Pulling back his hand, Tom noticed that his fingertips were crimson.
Damn, that hurt! Tom thought. But knowing how the curse word would offend Amy, he squelched it and played the incident for humor. “Well,” he offered, still half under the car. “I guess we’ll be extending our late-for-church streak to 15 weeks.”
“No,” Amy said, not displaying the first symptom of amusement. “We’ll just get lots of strange looks. Go get a bag of ice…” She paused, looking at her husband’s forehead. “Make that two bags of ice. And you’d better wash that off.”
Amy had paid for her college associate degree by joining the Army, and had emerged, among other things, as an EMT — emergency medical technician. Tom had learned long ago that, thanks to her military toughness and medical training, it was difficult to get sympathy for any injury short of a broken neck.
Back in the house, Tom bent over the counter to get a look at his forehead in the reflection on the toaster.
“Holy shit!” A purple egg was rising across the right side of his forehead, and a stream of drying blood streaked his face. By the time he mopped the rest of the blood up, the lump was three inches across, with a Frankensteinian gash zig-zagging a rough northeast-to-southwest path across his forehead. Streaks of black and blue spread out from the bump like a macabre starburst. Yikes.
Tom ran back out to the car, head pounding with every stride.
“Why is it so important that we’re on time today?” he asked, jumping into the driver’s seat, a bag of ice in one hand and more than a little irritated.
“It’s Reverend Fogherty’s fiftieth anniversary at St. Thomas’s,” Amy replied. “He’s the longest-serving minister in Richmond. He’s never missed a Sunday. WSSS-TV is even coming to the service.”
“I thought WSSS was short for ‘We Specialize in Sex and Scandals.”
“Well, I guess the Lord works in mysterious ways,” Amy snapped.
“Well, I’m injured, for Christ’s sake!”
Amy glared at Tom.
“Don’t give me that look!” Tom barked through clenched teeth. “‘Judge not’ — isn’t that what you Holy Rollers say?”
Amy’s expression stopped him cold. He’d done it again. She was hurt, and justifiably so. “Shit…. Amy…” he pleaded.
Too late. Amy’s eyes brimmed.
Resigned to spending the morning in the dogmahouse, Tom threw the minivan into reverse, backed out of the driveway, and stewed on this latest blow-up over “The God Issue,” as he called it.
For years, Tom and Amy had tried everything they could to have children, but it looked like it wasn’t in the cards. Then the miracle of Billy’s unexpected arrival occurred, spurring in Amy a rediscovering of her faith, moving her from a casual Christian to candidate for True Believer status.
For Tom, it had been less spiritually invigorating to unexpectedly find himself a new father at what he considered a late age. His own father’s death at 48 had already sapped him of his faith in the promises of religion. And then Billy arrived, and Tom realized that when Billy turned eight, Tom would be… 48. BANG! Tom was plunged suddenly into a full-blown mid-life crisis, complete with stark, gut-wrenching, cold-sweat-producing mental wrestling matches with the concept of death.
Struggling to distract himself from the terror, Tom had dived headlong into the material world, upgrading their beat up old sedan to a slippery white minivan, pouring hundreds of dollars into new electronic toys for the house, substituting work in the yard for working on his family relationships, and generally fully vesting himself in earthly treasures which would one day be overrun by moths, rust and crabgrass.
The result had been a growing spiritual, and then emotional, gulf between Amy and Tom. But neither Tom nor Amy were willing to give up that easily, and both were working hard to keep things together.
So as the family minivan rounded the last curve, and the steeple of St. Thomas’s Church rose over the tree line, Tom couldn’t take it anymore. The idea of another sixty or ninety minutes of silence, without resolving this thing, was unbearable.
Yanking the wheel to the right, he pulled the car onto the gravel shoulder of the road. Tires screeched behind them as a line of late worshipers swerved around the erratic vehicle.
Amy looked at him, still angry, but knowing what was coming. After twelve years of marriage, their pattern of arguing was well-established. Amy brooded. Tom exploded. Amy would keep brooding, and Tom would invariably re-address the issue, once he had cooled off. He could not leave a problem on the table.
“Amy, I’m sorry,” he began, his voice sincere. “I am sorry. I know church is important to you, and I have no right to run it down. I’m sorry.”
Amy’s face softened. Reflections of the morning sun rose in her eyes as tears began to well up again. She didn’t cry, though. “Tom, I know it’s been hard, and I don’t like that any more than you do. But… I’m just…”
“Neither one of us has it figured out,” Tom cut in. “We’re both trying, at least. But there is no excuse for what I did this morning, and I’m sorry.”
The look in Amy’s eyes told him that, while this wouldn’t be a wonderful morning, they were on their way back. There was nothing else to say at the moment that would move them any further forward. Besides, they were late, Tom’s head was pounding, and Billy was in the back blowing spit bubbles and repeating his favorite two words: “Big truck.” Tom pulled back out onto the road.
© Chuck Hansen - 2019