Walt's Choice

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Status: Finished  |  Genre: Literary Fiction  |  House: Booksie Classic

Submitted: October 08, 2019

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Submitted: October 08, 2019

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Walt’s age-spotted hand hovered over the handle. Behind thick lenses, he squinted up at the imposing, heavy wooden doors to the church. 

The doors opened. 

A newly married couple exited, the bride beaming and holding her bouquet up with one hand, her other hand entwined with her husband’s. The groom’s gaze rested on his wife, his eyes shining with adoration under the shining sun. As the couple took the stairs, step by step into a life together, the applause and cheers of those gathered to celebrate died when a tiny casket passed out the doors.

The darkness from the interior of the church clung to the casket, pulling down heads and shoulders of pallbearers and mourning family alike. Clouds bobbed like waves on an unsettled sea, obscuring the sun. Silence.

Silence. That was the only word Walt had for the way the doors loomed over him. Silent judgment. Condemnation. Damnation.

The doors remained closed.

He stepped back, withdrawing his hand from the handle and tightened his hands into fists until his nails dug into his palms, drawing blood. The pain rippled through his knobby knuckles like a whip slashing his hands. He released his grip on nothing, the agony too great. A sharp exhale of breath and he held every memory closer. He knitted the fabric of memory thread until it formed an invisible taut rope around his neck.

One cold drop of an indifferent heaven pelted his exposed pate, then another. The rain pulled him from the fabricated future memory of a hanged man swinging from the doorframe of the church.

Hello, world. Look upon me and see what faith gets you. Only death.

A shudder passed through him as he refocused on the closed doors. Closed, yes. Closed to him.

He shook his head, trying to tamp down the memories--those that haunted with sunshine and rain. The past’s hold tugged him back, and he turned for the stairs, for his car in the lot, for home--whatever was left of home after his dear Carol died.

His shoe made contact with the first of several concrete steps. His sweaty palm clutched at the frigid rail, a juxtaposition to January. He glanced back at the doors.

Choices tell us who we are, Walt, Carol’s voice echoed across time.

He shook his head, licked his lips, and muttered, “Too late now, Honey Bear. Too late.”

Walt took another step. The wind whipped against his frail frame, nearly carrying him with it. Rain droplets bulleted him.

Choices, Carol whispered as the Arctic blast calmed.

He turned back toward the doors. Leaning hard on his cane, it seemed the only feeble thing supporting him. He gripped the handle and thrust all his weight into the door.

The creak of hinges echoed down the darkened nave. Electricity in the air seized him, almost stopping him, but he ambled to a pew in the back of the sanctuary. His dragging gait silenced with the thud of his body crumpling into the seat. The wood pressed on his backside, on his forearms as he leaned forward and rested on the back of the pew in front of him.

Bowing his head, he tried to remember how. How did a man pray to a God he wasn’t sure existed, and if He did… Walt’s eyebrows drew down, as did his lips. The almost-eternal scowl was enforced by his jowls. He wore that mask well and had for years. 

Better to be angry than sad. Sadness is weakness, and weakness is

“Weakness is what?” he whispered into the darkness.

* * *

“Your boy is weak, I’m afraid,” said the doctor. “I’m terribly sorry, but there’s nothing we can do.”

“What do you mean there’s nothing you can do?” asked Walt. “You’re a doctor. You’re-- you’re supposed to be able to help him.”

Carol’s hand took his. Her quiet presence did nothing to comfort him, as if she had already given up.

The doctor gazed with vacant eyes at the young couple. He opened his mouth but closed it just a soon. With a shake of his dark head, he murmured, “I am sorry.”

As the doctor turned to leave, Walt extended his arm. The doctor was nearly out of reach when Walt’s hand gripped the other man’s shoulder. “But it’s the flu. People get the flu all the time.”

The doctor sighed, not facing Walt. His shoulders heaved as he took a deep breath and turned back toward the desperate father. “Listen, Mr. Johnson, I don’t like to make any promises, but maybe he’ll pull through. It’s just that this certain strain is especially virulent in children and older folks.”

“So, you’re saying there’s a chance Wally will be all right?” Walt’s heart lightened. He stood on his tip toes.

“Hope for the best is all I’m saying,” the doctor said. “Now, I’m truly sorry, but I must be off. I have other patients to attend to.”

Walt stood rooted to the hallway floor as the doctor disappeared into the crowd. Carol’s hand never left his. He turned his face toward the darkened hospital room. Bright lights bathed Walt as he stood just beyond the threshold. He entered the room where his little boy slept in an overlarge bed hooked up to machines.

He drew up a chair and released Carol’s hand. Another chair squeaked on the linoleum as Carol brought it to rest next to his.

“He’s gonna be okay, Honey Bear,” Walt said in a low voice.

Carol gazed back at him with unreadable eyes.

“What is it?” Walt licked his dry lips.

Carol shook her head. “Listen to his breathing, Walt. He’s wheezing. His lungs are filled with fluid. Pneumonia--”

Walt held up a hand. “Please, don’t say it. I could use something to drink. How about it, Honey Bear? A coffee, tea?” He stood, shifting from one foot to the other. The need to move, to do something--anything--overwhelmed. His mind drifted to the bar around the corner, to a different kind of drink. He scowled, disgusted with himself.

“I’m fine,” Carol said. “You don’t need to--”

Walt wiped the frown from his lips. She must’ve mistook my face. “N-no. It’s fine. I need some coffee. Not gonna sleep anyway. I’ll...I’ll be right back.”

He exited before Carol said another word. As he passed staff and visitors, Walt averted his gaze beyond their blurred faces. They had no idea of his story, knew nothing of his suffering. He turned down another hall for the cafeteria.

He’s gonna be okay. He’s gotta be. Walt halted when he came to the chapel. The stained-glass scene of Jesus with the little children on his knees stared back. He lifted his hand for the handle and held it. 

Words from one of Pastor Emerson’s sermons floated through him, the smooth assurance of the pastor’s baritone voice losing its power:

But Jesus called the children to him and said, “Let the little children come to me, and do not hinder them, for the kingdom of God belongs to such as these. Truly I tell you, anyone who will not receive the kingdom of God like a little child will never enter it.”

Walt withdrew his hand. 

If I could only believe it. Do I?

He sensed a presence next to him. Walt turned to find an elderly woman wearing a headscarf staring up at him. Her gentle eyes, enlarged by her lenses, seemed to probe him, to see into his soul. Her rosy cheeks reminded him of his grandma, a lady who sang German lullabies to him as she rocked him to sleep. A tear prickled in his eye.

“Excuse me, young man,” she said in a craggy voice. “May I come through? I need to pray for my dear husband. Poor Charles isn’t well, hasn’t been for months, you understand.” 

“Oh, of course. Um...sorry.” His ears heated as he stepped aside.

The woman made to amble past him but stopped when the door was half-open. She turned. “Are you coming?”

“N-no. That’s quite all right. I was, uh, just on my way out.” He forced a smile.

She surveyed him, offered a small smile, and squeezed his limp hand. “I’ll pray for you and whoever it is you’re here for.”

Thank you. The words died on his lips as Walt held them like a corpse in a tomb.

The chapel swallowed her. Walt thought it a fair way of seeing how churches ate their followers and spit out the less savory ones. Thorny weeds like him. 

He pulled on a frown and drew down his eyebrows. The older woman was a kind soul, but she had enough heartache of her own. She didn’t need to waste words on him to an indifferent God.

No, definitely not going in there. Prayer did nothing to save all those poor babies Carol lost. 

Had he been alone, Walt would’ve spit on the doors, on the lies of the scene before him. 

He took a step to continue to the cafeteria, but after a dozen half-hearted strides, his resolve died. The door to the stairwell stood to his immediate right. 

So easy. Just take the stairs down and out to the street…

Walt sent a covert glance from left to right, like a child about to steal a cookie, then took the stairs to temporary freedom.

The sunshine’s warmth wrapped him like a blanket. Today was one of those golden-coin days, a precious gem among the rubble of slate that made up most of the year in Cleveland. Walt passed his church. He’d seen less and less of Pastor Emerson over the last year.

While many men fought in Vietnam, Walt taught philosophy and history at Case Western. Religion had its place, he supposed, in an increasingly secular world, but philosophy and history taught him as many lessons as he taught his students. Whenever he lifted a mug of beer or a shot of whiskey to his smooth lips, he drank down the cynicism of personal experience with it and let it sit in his belly. Personal experience, more than anything taught in the classroom, Walt knew, was a brutal teacher. His experience told him a story more real than those children’s tales in the Bible.

Bad things happen. All the time. God does nothing. Is nowhere. Doesn’t care. Doesn’t look.

He scoffed at the church, at any sycophantic phrases Pastor Emerson would or could offer Walt if he deigned to enter his church. No, the church. A church. Pastors like Emerson were as dirty as the lot of humanity, the bottom of the rust bucket at times. Walt heard enough stories about what the likes of sex-depraved priests did to altar boys to know that. At the very least, Emerson was a liar. 

No way in hell he really believes that nonsense he spouts. Walt entered his sanctuary the moment he stepped into Harry’s Pub. 

Appropriate to worship at the altar of a bar and take communion with fellow believers of a different type of spirit. 

Carol’s eyes blinked into his mind. No judgment, only concern. 

Walt’s chest tightened as guilt suffused his heart. He wondered if she worried where he’d gone. 

Of course she has, you idiot, but all the better that maybe...should something happen…

“What’ll you have, son?” asked the bartender, Ted. Recognition lit his rheumy eyes. “Oh, hello, Walt. You don’t look so good, fella. This one’s on the house.” He plunked a mug of draft beer in front of Walt.

“Thanks,” Walt mumbled, picking the mug and nearly draining half of it. He set it down. 

The pub was quiet, giving Ted nothing better to do than lean on the bar countertop with his beefy arms and contemplate the young man in front of him. “Gorgeous day today.”

“Yeah.” Walt took another gulp of the beer. Just one beer and I’ll go back.

Ted raised an out-of-control hairy eyebrow. “Well, why ain’t you out enjoying it? Seems I’ve been seeing more and more of you here. Said you got a pretty wife and a boy, what, about five?”

Ted’s innocent words lanced Walt straight through the heart. Walt scowled, turned, and drank the rest of the beer. “Another, if you please.” Just one beer. Right. The lies we tell ourselves.

The bartender pursed his lips but didn’t push the matter. “Whatever you like, young man.”

Walt mock-saluted Ted, his index and middle fingers extended as he flicked his hand away from his forehead. 

After Ted returned with the second round, he didn’t ask any more questions. Several rounds followed. Walt’s head spun as he lost track of how many beers he’d downed. He raised a shaky hand and slurred, “One more. Just one.”

Ted shook his head. “No can do, I’m afraid. Look, whatever it is, Walt, enough is enough. Do I need to call a cab?”

“Nah, I walked here from the hospital.” He laughed like he just told the funniest joke.

“The hospital? What the hell, man?”

“Yeah, yeah… Get this. My boy you mentioned? He’s sick.”

Ted’s face darkened. “Your boy’s sick? Then what the blazes you doing here?”

Walt shrugged. “What’s it look like? I’m giving you business. I’m a paying customer. Look.” He dug in his pants pocket and extracted his wallet, laying a twenty on the counter. “I’d say that more than covers it, plus a huge tip.”

Ted eyed the money but didn’t take it. “Keep it and buy your boy a kite or a ball mitt. Or your wife some flowers for what you’ve just put her through, and get your sorry ass back to the hospital. Don’t tell me your woman’s there worrying her pretty head off over you.”

Walt stood and glared. “Look, pal.” He leaned over the counter and poked Ted hard in the chest. “I don’t need your damn judgment. I come here to escape from that shit. You’re the one serving up the booze to sorry guys like me. It’s your fault--” He made to prod the bartender again, but Ted blocked him.

Ted grasped Walt’s hand until the younger man flinched. “I’m gonna make a call. Either the cops or a cab. Your pick.”

Walt held up his hands. “Okay, okay. I catch your drift. Look, I don’t need any more trouble than I’ve already got.” He left the twenty-dollar bill on the bar top and slumped out, back into the sunlight.

His head pounded as he took the ten-minute walk back to the hospital. He kept his eyes on the sidewalk, trying to prevent the headache he knew would come. The church blended in with the rest of the buildings, and Walt paid it no heed. His numb brain couldn’t process much beyond his next step.

Somehow, he made his way back to Wally’s room. Carol’s soft sobs reached his ears. The lump that had been growing in his throat lodged itself right above his vocal chords. He came to her side and placed a hand on her shoulder. She stiffened. 

“Where were you?” Carol’s words pleaded and accused. Choices tell us who we are, Walt.

She didn’t have to utter the words for him to hear them on a level deeper than ears ever could. For him to feel the words in his marrow and blood as his heart betrayed him and beat life out of him, little by little.

Walt lifted his eyes from the floor to the bed. A white sheet was all that remained.

“No.” He breathed out the word as his eyes unleashed tears. His legs buckled, and he collapsed onto the bed, burying his face in the sheet. He clutched the fabric on either side, reaching, searching, longing for Wally’s little breathing form to warm his fingers. For something real to hold. To hold his boy, his precious baby body...whose laughter was just an echo now.

* * *

Laughter was just an echo now.

Walt’s tears slid past his closed eyes and streamed in a steady river down his grizzled cheeks. In his mind, he saw that empty hospital bed as if it lay right in front of him. The bed grew wider until it became the queen one in his bedroom. The left side, well-indented by his body, remained cold these last few days. He slept on Carol’s side now, burying his nose in her pillow, dying for the slightest hint of her shampoo or perfume to cling to life. Too often, he knew, he coated her pillow with his regret and came away without sleep and only a damp cheek.

Every morning when he left the bed, every afternoon when he paced the empty house, after every picked-over meal, every evening when his eyes shut for what he hoped was the final time, Walt held his wedding picture. The framed black and white photo showed a couple from another life. Whenever Walt gazed upon their smiles, he drifted to a time when their lives seemed filled with endless possibilities. The dreams of the young, if only youth knew how those glass-vessel visions shattered, were a vanity Walt both wished he could forget and a drug he guzzled. 

Cancer. The C-word had taken Carol after months of fighting. Why is it called fighting, as if the poor soul infested with that black disease were a warrior? Walt slumped back into the pew and withdrew a smaller, tattered version of his wedding photo from his wallet. He caressed Carol’s flat face with his finger. A tear escaped, blurring his vision. He wiped at his eye under his glasses and removed the lenses, for what good did they do when he couldn’t see?

He closed his eyes. Better this way. 

* * *

He closed his eyes as Carol’s soft lips claimed his. Walt wrapped his arms around her lithe body.

He chuckled, opening his eyes. He ran a finger along her collarbone, over her shoulder, pushing her top lower. He kissed her there. 

Carol shivered and giggled. “Walt!”

“What?” His eyes danced in the low light of the motel room. 

“The things you do to me.”

He cupped her cheek and kissed her mouth. “Like we haven’t done this and more before.”

“Not like this. Still, if my parents knew we’d--”

He silenced her with another kiss. When it ended, he laughed. “Honey Bear, bringing up your parents at a time like this--”

She joined in the laughter. “I know, I know. Forgive me?”

“Of course. But finish your earlier thought--you know, the one before you mentioned my new in-laws.” Walt’s crooked smile was sure to tease a confession out of her.

“I was going to say we haven’t made love as husband and wife.”

“Ah, there it is.” He tapped her nose with his ring finger and marveled at the band and what it symbolized. “You know, I still can’t believe you married me. I swear, I’m the luckiest guy alive.”

“No, silly, I’m the luckiest girl alive.”

They lost themselves in sheets and limbs for several minutes and gained a new dimension of understanding. Afterward, a sheen of sweat covering his body, Walt lay with Carol resting on his naked torso. 

“That was…” he breathed. 

“That was?” Carol shifted to gaze up at his face.

“I don’t have words. My favorite part of the day, besides saying ‘I do.’”

“And in a church, no less.” Carol nipped at his nose, then sat up.

“You make it sound like we had sex in a church.” He grinned.

“Oh, shush, you.” She gave his chest a small shove.

Walt propped himself up with the help of some pillows and snaked his arms around her, pulling her to him. “And where do you think you’re going?” He trailed kisses along her neck and suckled her supple earlobe. 

Carol smiled softly and turned. “Walt, don’t evade the question.”

“What question? I didn’t hear a question.”

“It was implied. You know, church?”

“Yeah, church? Places where people get married and have funerals. Sometimes go on Christmas and Easter.” He shrugged.

“The church is more than that. The vows we took today weren’t just between us.”

Walt frowned, recalling their pre-marital meetings with the pastor. “If it’s all the same to you, Honey Bear, I don’t really wanna think about God being in bed with us.”

Carol stared at him, her eyes large, for several seconds. She seemed torn between laughing and scolding him. She tapped him on the nose and pushed herself to sitting. “That’s not what it means, and you know it.”

Walt sat up as well. “Damn, I didn’t mean to ruin the moment. Look, Honey Bear, you know me and religion just don’t mix. Oil and vinegar and all that.”

She pursed her pouty lips. “I think this is an important conversation to have, just not on our wedding night.” She eased closer and wrapped her arms around his neck, pulling him to her naked chest.

With his head buried in her breasts, Walt felt his groin tingle with pleasure. He breathed in her sweet scent and raised his hands to her breasts. “Hmm, I won’t argue with you there.” He kissed her between her breasts, then slid his mouth up her neck, to her chin, and finally to her mouth.

No more talk of God came from their mouths that night.

* * *

But talk of God came for years after Walt and Carol returned from their quick honeymoon to Niagara Falls. As Walt held Carol’s picture with his stiff hands, he recalled how he had sat in this very pew that first Christmas after their wedding. He went along only to oblige her, just like with the marriage classes with the pastor. His young legs had shaken with anticipation of darting as soon as the service ended. His bowed legs rested heavy on the wooden pew now. His young eyes had glanced at his watch every couple of minutes. His aged eyes couldn’t see clearly past the tip of his nose. His young self thought he had all the time in the world and what am I doing wasting it in a church, for God’s sake? 

For God’s sake? No, for Carol’s sake. Always for her. 

And time ran out. Just like that.

Choices tell us who we are, Walt, Carol’s phantom voice whispered, a lingering note on a passing breeze.

“And what do my choices say about me?” asked Walt into the echoing darkness. 

Nothing. No answers. Only questions. The cold, hard pew offered no comfort, no embrace. 

And how many times did I sit here those early years...sometimes in later years...grasping for belief, for a glimmer of hope, for a pinprick of faith?

That answer Walt knew. After their first Christmas as a married couple, Walt continued to come with Carol to church. Sometimes, a word or a phrase from the sermon would stick to him like gum to the bottom of his shoe. He’d walk across the parking lot, and with every step, the gum snapped as it pulled up from the pavement and hit his shoe. 

If it wasn’t gum, those little pokes and prods were tiny slivers stuck in his hands. They hurt, but he couldn’t get them out right away. After some time, his body and mind adjusted and began to accept those slivers. Maybe they irritated, but they got his attention.

Then came the balm.

“Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest.Take my yoke upon you and learn from me, for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy and my burden is light.”

He believed. Or wanted to believe. He was never completely sure.

* * *

He believed in God. 

He believed until Carol had her first miscarriage. Until her second. Until their stillborn daughter named Grace--when there wasn’t any grace. Until. Until. Until.

He believed until sickness upon sickness afflicted his only son.

Then Wally died. 

I believe. Help my unbelief!

Maybe that had been his plea before. Maybe his mustard seed had still been enough, buried just enough to take root in a shallow grave. His faith candle extinguished with a life that had only begun.

Weary. Burdened. Those words rang true as the bell tolled the beginning of Wally’s funeral. Walt dropped into the pew, exhausted from fighting. He buried his head in his hands and wept.

* * *

Walt buried his bald head in his gnarled hands and wept. And wept. And wept.

Choices. Our choices tell us who we are, Walt.

He lifted his eyes to the undefined cross. 

“He will wipe every tear from their eyes. There will be no more death or mourning or crying or pain, for the old order of things has passed away.”

He stiffened, sitting up straighter than he had in years. Words...phrases...from Pastor Emerson’s sermon...years ago. Words lost in the bottle. Lost in his grief. Lost in his pain. Lost in his...unbelief?

Walt licked his lips. “I have nothing else to lose. I’ve already lost it all.”

He bowed his head and tried to remember how again. He chose to let his thoughts finish themselves this time. How does a man pray to a God he isn’t sure exists, and if He does, why does He let humankind suffer?

A tear tracked down the wrinkle from his eye to his mouth, a remnant of sweet Carol’s kisses there, of days when he knew smiles.

“P-please,” he sobbed. “Tell me she’s up there with You. Tell me Wally and Grace and all those poor children are with You...because...because I’m tired and alone and I can’t do this anymore. I can’t go on like this. Not like this.”

A beam of sunlight filtered into the darkness and caressed Walt’s old smile line.

“Honey Bear?” He gazed across the sanctuary as the light moved over the pews and toward the cross, now clear and unhindered. The gold glinted in the sun as the light bathed the cross in full glory. 

Walt’s body trembled, every nerve on fire. He clenched his eyes shut, and the world turned upside-down. Carol’s spring-blossom scent permeated his nose as he stood among tall grass tickling his feet. The sodden, warm earth squished between his toes as new life sprung up in the form of daffodils and tulips. The April breeze played with his full head of hair. He could almost taste the strawberries that would ripen in several weeks, bursting with flavor and the juice of life. So alive.

“Here, throw the ball to me, sport!” Walt called, the words as much a part of him as his breath.

Wally giggled, holding onto the baseball with his tiny hands. He looked up at his daddy with a challenge in his eyes. “Bet ya can’t catch me!” He darted off, his laughter wrapping around Walt as father took off after son.

Walt caught the little boy around the torso and yelled, “Gotcha!”

Wally erupted in a fit of giggles as his daddy pulled him to his chest and they fell into the grass in a tumble.

“Look at you two, peas in a pod,” came Carol’s birdsong voice.

Walt sat up, his boy on his lap, as she crossed the yard and joined him. 

Carol leaned into him. “Welcome home, darling.” They kissed. He tasted strawberries. Life. Alive. More alive than...

Walt opened his mouth and paused, taking in all around him. “Wait.” He wrapped his arm around Carol, feeling her sure and steady presence beside him. Wally continued to sit in his lap, switching the ball from one hand to the other. 

A little girl in pigtails ran toward them. Walt stared at her, his mouth agape.

“Daddy, I finally get to meet you.” She touched his cheek.

A tear escaped as love anointed him.

A half-dozen children giggled around him as they appeared, one by one, and ran to him. 

And he knew without words. Home.

* * *

Fred entered the sanctuary after the rain stopped mid-afternoon. He pushed the mop bucket down the center aisle and halted when his eyes fell on the slumped form of an old man near the back of the sanctuary.

The mop clattered to the floor as Fred ran to the man. He checked for a pulse but could tell by the man’s color that he had been dead for a few hours. He heart sank as he sat next to the old man and said a silent prayer. When he ended the prayer, he noticed a small, sweet smile on the old man’s face. Fred smiled.

“You came to the right place, sir,” he said. 

 


© Copyright 2019 Cynthia Hilston. All rights reserved.

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