Larry spent the rest of New Year’s Eve staring at his sleeping father’s open mouth. A preacher, his father had made his living with his mouth, just as Larry made his with his ears. The mouth always had plenty to say. His father’s sermons, printed out and clipped to binders, filled an entire storage unit he kept paying rent on, carefully preserved for a posterity that cared more for digital games and reality shows than the Word of God.
Larry already had plans for the storage unit and the contents therein. As soon as he could get away with it, driving home from his father’s funeral, perhaps; he will take all the binders out into an open field and burn them. Then, Larry will feel free. It will have been the only time his father’s words had ever set him free.
The mouth, silent now except for an occasional snore, produced words as sticky and binding as a spider’s web, as tough and uncompromising as a jailer’s cage, as opaque as a torturer’s hood. Six days a week, throughout his childhood, the words tied Larry up. Injunctions binded his wrists, dictums wrapped his ankles, maxims and mottos constricted his torso, sanctions and restrictions looped around his neck and led him around.
Six days a week his father’s words tethered Larry; on the seventh day, Larry’s father trussed up God.
Larry’s father prided himself in the secure packaging, attractive advertising, and prompt shipping and handling of God; the ingredients carefully spelled out and free of doctrinal impurities. He trafficked in an old, respected brand name: Methodism, and carried the entire line of approved Methodist hymns, rites, prayers, doxologies, canon, quotes, interpretations, teachings, and practices. He had an answer for every mystery and a retort for every doubt.
He provided prompt and courteous service for funerals, weddings, and baptisms. He went wherever his Bishop sent him; often changing churches every two years, as if he was the circuit rider celebrated in Methodist tradition, and enjoyed rapid advancement to wealthy congregations. He patiently endured his parishioners poking into his personal life, his family life, his children’s lives, even to the extent of the pastoral committee shifting through the trash of the household. His last congregation affectionately called him The Rev, the whole town called him The Rev, even Larry called him The Rev, and still did as he watched him snore the last of the year away in a nursing home.
The Rev had two great disappointments in his life. The first was that he was unable to deliver to his Church a son who would continue the work of the cloth. Oh, it was not without trying. He even sent Larry to seminary. Larry dutifully went, until the last semester, when, filled with the assurance of grace and the theology of Tillich, he realized that he possessed the keys to his own cell and set himself free. It was an uneasy sort of freedom, however; for the hounds of reproach and recrimination pursued him to this day.
The Rev’s second great disappointment was that his last congregation sent him away. They gave him three days to vacate the parsonage and urged him to get out of town. It had come to light that he provided a particular variety of pastoral care to a female parishioner, one that was not approved by the United Methodist Church. The woman didn’t complain, but her husband did and he raised a cry that resonated throughout the entire church. The Bishop, who had always thought so highly of him, would not overlook this single transgression, demanded that he surrender his frock, and his pension.
The Rev moved one final time, alone to an efficiency apartment in the town of his penultimate congregation. He spent his last decades editing his old sermons for possible publication, plaguing the succeeding pastors of his church, and reproaching Larry for not answering his call to the ministry, until, at last, Early Alzheimer’s released them all and dictated a move to the nursing home.
Alzheimer’s is generally considered a dread disease, responsible for untold suffering. Not in this case. The Rev continued to be lucid and even wise, witty, and well read on occasion, but forgotten were his transgression with the parishioner, the divorce of Larry’s mother, the humiliating loss of his pension and descent to the efficiency apartment. Forgotten was the book he had been trying to write. The Rev still had a handle on the basic tenants of his creed, but lost the intricate arguments that scaffold iron-clad apologetics. He no longer had an answer to everything. The vines and brambles of dogma were cleared away to reveal that they had hid a fundamental kindness and generosity that nobody ever knew about. To Larry’s surprise, The Rev had become, in his doddering old age, a wonderful human being; to everyone but him.
Forgotten, too, was the disappointment The Rev had in Larry. The trouble was that, in forgetting that he was disappointed in Larry, he also forgot that, in being disappointed, he was a disappointment of a father. The Rev had never been supportive, compassionate, or encouraging. He had never admitted that Larry’s choice of a career was a worthy calling of its own. He had no memory of being hard to please and underwent no struggle to try to change. The Rev enjoyed the very grace that he had hypocritically withheld from Larry as he had proclaimed it from the pulpit. Furthermore, in robbing his father of any awareness of guilt, Larry felt that Alzheimer’s had stolen his chance to forgive.
The open, snoring, toothless mouth seemed especially loathsome to Larry that night. It appeared to be the very gaping, gulping jaws of Hell. A pillow would close that mouth forever, and there were plenty of pillows around. Larry even got up to fetch one. He even walked over, turned up the sound on the TV, and stood over The Rev for a minute, peering down into that abyss of a mouth. He glanced towards the door. A shadow crossed the threshold. A visitor stepped into the room.
No, it wasn’t the police, nor was it a nurse. It was the nursing home’s death cat, strolling about, considering who to choose.
Larry sat in his chair and threw the pillow back. He wouldn’t murder his father right away. He would wait, sitting very still, and see on whose lap the cat would sit.