I remember church as a young man. I would be forced to wear my finest clothes, my mother called them my "Sunday best". They itched and wiggled upward into places they should never be. She would comb my hair the same way that my Grandpa always did and make me wash my face three different times. Then right before we left she would have me blow in her face to make sure I didn't have bad breath.
She would walk to the kitchen and grab the dish she had made the night before, then we would leave. I tried to walk normal but my fancy pants always seemed to think that they would look better in my armpits rather than on my hips. I would walk beside Mama, sometimes holding her hand, sometimes not. She always looked her best on Sunday mornings. She would wear her best dresses and shoes and hats. She looked so different from when she wore her worn work clothes with her hair pulled tight on top of her head.
I remember one Sunday more than any other. It was when I was eight. It was hot that morning and my fancy shirt was making me itch in places I could never hope to reach. I kept squirming in my seat, trying to make the itching stop, but it didn't help, all it did was upset Mama.
We always sat in the middle pew on the right side. After service Mama said she needed to speak with Pastor Jones before we went over to the potluck. I waited in our pew.
It was then that I Mrs. Brooks and Miss Stodarm came walking down the isle. I ducked down so that they couldn't see me. Mrs. Brooks was a cheek pincher and I didn't want any of it. When they got closer I heard them say Mama's name.
"Did you see that little boy of hers, squirming in his seat? You would think she would teach him manners, especially for a house of the Lord. Absolutely frightful." Miss Stodarm whispered to Mrs. Brooks.
"What do you expect? She can't even dress presentable for church." Mrs. Brooks made a noise like Mama made when she found mistakes spelling mistakes in the newspaper. I stayed quiet and didn't get up off of the floor until I heard the heavy doors at the front of the church close behind them.
I sat in the pew and thought over what they had said about Mama and her dress. Mama had worn her best spring dress. Little yellow flowers in a sea of early morning blue. I thought it was pretty. It wasn't stained or torn. I sat there quietly thinking it over until Mama came back.
"Mama can we just go home?" She got down on one knee and looked at me, the way she did when she thought I was sick. Then she placed her hand on my forehead to see if I was running a fever. When she was done, she didn't say anything, just offered me her hand and we walked home.
On the way home, I watched Mama. We didn't live far from the church so we usually walked. Mama seemed just fine, she smiled and held my hand and even pointed out a blue jay to me. She had been a lot happy since we received a letter telling us Dad was coming home, but she was usually happy.
"Mama, don't we dress presentable for church?"
"Of course we do, Honey."
"Is that why you make me where these itchy clothes?"
"Yes. Why do you ask?"
"Someone said we didn't dress right for church."
"Why did she say that then?"
"I'm not sure. Some people dress up for church in order the impress each other. We don't. We dress up to show God that we are thankful for all that he does for us and for all that he gives us. We also dress up for church to show God that we respect him. We don't dress up for the other people at church, we dress up for God."
"God cares about what we wear?"
"No. Not exactly. If we came to church in stained up work clothes, God wouldn't care, He would just be happy that we came. But since we don't have to wear stained clothes, we don't."
"What about what they said, though?"
"Their opinion holds little weight in God's eyes. You'll understand when you are older. For now, remember, God isn't worried about what we wear or what others think of us. He only cares about the choices we make and how we treat others."
I haven't been to church since Mama died. Until today. This isn't the same church, or the same people, but it feels the same. I didn't sit in the middle this time, I'm in the very back. I was late, but I'm here, and I brought my son with me. We're both dressed in our "Sunday Best" and they still itch terribly. But God doesn't care if we squirm a little, or if our clothes aren't the best ones here. He only cares that we came, that we listen, and that we care. I'm glad we came, I'm glad my son come with me. It's been a long long time.
It was the hottest day so far. My brand new pants suit slowly sealed itself to the inside of my thighs. Things just didn't seem to like they could get any worse ... until I missed my bus. I made it to the bus stop just in time to see it making a right turn two blocks down. The next one wouldn't arrive for another fifteen minutes, at least. I leaked frustration as if it were sweat,
An older man, probably in his mid-fifties, sat on the far side of the bench. He was handsome, given his age, his hair brushed back, proudly displaying a modest dusting of gray. He wore a simple button down blue shirt tucked into a pair of navy blue jeans. He leaned forward, his elbows resting on his knees. He appeared to be staring intently across the street at, yet another, corporate office building.
"Miss the bus too?" He looked at me and I noticed his piercing blue eyes. He smiled at me, not a full smile, but one of slight amusement before answering.
"No, not at all. Just taking a moment to think on things."
"You chose the bus stop as a thinking spot? Don't you think that is a little odd?"
"Perhaps. I am not from around here. I find the city to be a little grating and noisy, to be honest. But, my daughter once told me that the bus stop was the best place to think about anything and everything. So, I thought I would give it a try."
"Well, when you miss the bus, you certainly have a lot of time to waste."
"Waste? I don't think that is what she meant, but I suppose it is a possibility." We lapsed into an awkward silence. He settled back onto his knees, staring across the street. His hands were clasped together in front of him as if he were praying.
"My name is Joan."
"George." We shook hands.
"Why don't you ask her what she meant?" He turned away from me, dropping my hand as though I burned him, and turned his attention to the sidewalk under our feet. A large crack ran between his worn work boots, stretching all the way to the street. A dark stain graced the cement under his left boot. His shoulders sagged and I was afraid I had insulted him.
"I can't. She died." He looked up at the building. "She loved this place. This city. I never understood it; her fascination with it all."
"Did she live here?"
"She was attending the university. Creative writing major. Wanted to work for a publishing company; write her own novel; be the first one to read other's work." he chuckled. "She was always writing something or talking in little riddles. The way she described the sunset against the buildings out her window, you could see it. Really see it." He smiled at me. "I guess that might not make sense."
"Yes, yes it does. So, you came here to think about her?"
"Yes and no. I want to understand something. Something she wrote in her last letter home. She said she had come to understand the world. The world was normal and beautiful and perfect, yet strange and broken and ugly. Two days later, we got a call saying she was in ICU. I never got the chance to ask her about it."
"The police said it was a mugging gone wrong. They said she fought back and the mugger's gun went off." He shrugged.
"I am so sorry for your loss." There was silence for a minute. "Do you understand what she meant yet?"
"I don't know. I don't know if I ever will."
I looked at the building across from us. It's wasn't beautiful, but it wasn't ugly either. It looked like a lot of other buildings in our city. Colorless with sleek lines and perfect edges. A model of symmetry. The sky was bright blue overhead, the sun scorching. A slight breeze blew an old grocery bag through the gutter. Was the world beautiful and ugly? Whole yet broken? Normal and strange?
Just then the next bus pulled up to the curb; the doors slid open with a loud squeal. I rose from the bench and tucked my purse under my arm.
"I hope you figure it out."
"Same here." I climbed the dirty steps into the bus and paid my fare. There was a seat open, facing the bench where he sat. I wondered how long he would sit there, staring at the building across the street, the weird stain under his boot. I couldn't help but ponder his daughter's words on the ride home. Could something be beautiful and ugly, broken yet whole?
Every great story means something to someone.
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