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Church tonight? Musings on Ascension Day

Romy Geerlings put his feet up on the hassock and picked up the remote before he said a word about what Rosalee had just told him, quite casually, a moment before. He took an audible breath, meant itself as a reply, and then asked simply, no spin at all, "Church tonight?"

"Ascension Day," she said, her back to him, piling the newspapers and magazines on the shelf beside the TV. It was unlike her to say it that way, as if it were a mandate. He'd just returned from four days on the road, and Ascension Day services, normally, were optional at best. Even in her usual understated way, it was unlike Rosalee to insist.

Romy put down the remote and looked around, but she'd already swept the lamp table clean of Newsweeks and Sports lllustrateds. His watch said almost seven, and he'd just finished cleaning up in the kitchen after making a couple of Philly cheese-steak sandwiches, her favorite when the two of them were home alone, a situation more common recently now that the kids were sometimes home, sometimes not—most of the time not.

He didn't have to ask her what the problem was. Rosalee had a way of couching her anxiety in offhand remarks, which is exactly what she'd done when they'd sat here together on the rug just a few minutes before and eaten sandwiches, the Weather Channel on the tube in front of them.

"Weather looks great," she'd said, pointing with a potato chip at the empty radar map on the screen. "I don't know why I should worry."

"You've got a right," he'd told her. "She's our kid."

She was worried about Cam and her boyfriend Todd, who were on the road to Todd's home in Montana, a place that must have seemed, to Rosalee, ten thousand miles of sheer danger away. Camela was their first, their only girl, and, odd as it seemed, Rosalee insisted that their daughter was wearing all the ga-ga of someone in love.

That was the reason for the mandate, he thought, silly as it sounded to both of them—church as insurance. His wife was insisting on Ascension Day services, not because she was so regular, not because she thought Ascension Day so essential, not even because she loved, like some newborn Christian, to meet with the congregation of the righteous. She wanted to go because she was scared. She needed church.

"Well, I'm going," she told him, still not facing him. "You've got all the right in the world to stay home if you want, but I'm going." And then she went upstairs.

Despite all the hoopla about men and women, he thought, there is a difference. He'd just come back from four days of traveling—a show in Oklahoma City, a TruValue Hardware convention, a couple thousand store owners shopping for spring merchandise. He'd done well, too. Gardening was coming back, and the tools of the trade were hot stuff. But that wasn't the point. The point was that traveling, for him, was just part of life. Sometimes instructive, sometimes not, but often breathtaking—Great Plains landscapes so wide they were uncapturable on canvas, a kind of grandeur appreciated only from the center of miles and miles of land yawning away in all directions.

The truth was, he traveled because he loved it, and the thought of Cam and Todd zinging across South Dakota and the Big Sky—through all that flat-top beauty, then eventually waking to the sun in the rearview—made him happy for them. Because if the truth be known, he wanted his kids to grow up, to feel life banging at the door of their opportunities. He didn't want them to leave home really, not like Cosby used to, but he wanted them to shed the silliness of high school and the quaint idea that the world itself was anything like Manning, Nebraska.

Not so, Rosalee. Which is not to say that she wanted them around either, and not to say she wanted to keep her children at home. What it was is that she feared for them. Something maternal, he thought, though he'd never dare say it, not even to her.

He hit the remote, and the screen lit to one of those cheap shows that recreate startling stories. He could tell immediately that the footage was staged because it was too perfect. A huge black man, maybe three hundred pounds, and a wiry blonde-haired kid, bearded, held up the side of one of those little pickups, while two women dragged an unconscious child out from beneath it, through shattered glass from the storefront the truck had hit. Then a close-up of the mother, crying, her mascara running down her cheeks so vividly the cameraman brought us close enough to watch it streak. "I held my child in my arms like a baby," she said, and then she shrugged her shoulders. "I can't talk about it."

"I can't talk about it." Ten years ago, Fred and Lisa, good friends, had lost their second, Aaron, by some freaky virus only Mayo had ever heard of. Some coughing, a light fever, sudden paralysis, and he was gone. "I can't talk about it." Romy remembered sitting on their bed with the two of them upstairs, the living room beneath them full of people from the church bringing what seemed useless comfort, and he remembered Fred so broken that he wouldn't or couldn't get off the floor. A lost child.

He snapped off the TV. Cam's bedroom was already empty, its walls shorn of the posters that once brought so much life and color. But he remembered what it was like when everyone was home, the four walls creating a huge shoebox full of life—boom-boxes roaring, bathrooms busy, noise all over the house. And now, silence. For some reason, totally unexplicable, a cemetery appeared in Romy's imagination, he and Rosalee at the center of a small crowd gathered beneath a snapping, wind-driven canopy on that same broad prairie, the coffin in front of them something ornately purple, horribly grotesque, over an open pit only partially camouflaged by the kind of green plastic rug people (aid on their front steps. He felt Rosalee's sadness in the arm he had around her, heard the words of Psalm 90 or something being read to them, to their hurt, and felt the prairie winds like a ratchet across his face.

To imagine Cam gone created only a deep gray-ness—an impenetrable blanket of fog. Bart, one of the guys from work, had lost a teenager in an accident years ago, and every April he missed work for three days, sometimes more, on the anniversary of Rick's death.

It could happen to Cam, he told himself. In an instant, Cam and Todd could both be gone. Things happen. Hadn't he seen dozens of accidents on the highways? Out in the middle of nowhere he'd climb some long prairie bluff and come over the top only to see a scramble of red lights flashing horror, an ambulance half in the ditch, a covey of wreckers, the contents of a travel trailer spilled like trash over the median from something upturned like a horrible animal. How many times?

Cam, he thought. He'd never been close enough to her, maybe, always assumed that she'd come closer to him when she needed him someday. "Have you hugged your kid today?" A bad joke, a reprimand. He'd spent so much time on the road himself.

There on the broadly stretched prairie of his own life story he came shockingly to a demonic chasm, a Grand Canyon-size emptiness that stretched forever between him (between both of them, he and Rosalee) and whatever stood on the other side of a tragedy he was only imagining, another side that appeared from that precipice to be so far away that whatever was over there he understood to be of no consequence. If something happened to Cam, tomorrow would make absolutely no difference, he thought, for the first time in his life. No conventions, so sales, no dreams. Only sadness. Only this royal gorge.

He pulled his hands up in front of him and saw the tension that ran like hot current through him. Cam might not return, he told himself again, forcing the words, pushing himself even deeper into a black night he could no more imagine clearly than he could find his way through. That's what Rosalee was fearing.

What am I doing? he asked himself. But those things happen, the voice inside him said again. Could Bart ever have guessed his son wouldn't return the night a few years back? When their son was healthy as a newborn, could Fred and Lisa ever have imagined how they might feel to lose him?

And how little, really, he and Rosalie suffered. In some families from church, tragedies came like the connected acts of long plays, one after another—illnesses, strokes, accidents, divorce, immense hurt. What did he, Romy Geerlings, know of real suffering? Wasn't it his turn, really—life really little more than a trip on a wheel of fortune?

He pulled himself up in the chair. My goodness, he'd traveled thousands of miles every year without a problem, so why start worrying now? Todd and Cam were sensible kids, no problems, really, with drinking or anything. But bad things happen to good people.

And then something, some vacuum, told him what he would feel like if Cam were already gone, She'd left, and he couldn't say anything to her now, couldn't tell her how much he would miss her, how much he'd loved her, couldn't begin to explain how suddenly he'd felt himself die.

She'd laugh. "My goodness, Dad, you sound like an old man."

An old man—and he was, in a world of madness where unexpected things fell into the flatland of life like searing meteorites, a world where the worst could happen and so often did—but never before to him.

He heard Rosalee's steps in the bedroom above him, followed them from the stairs in the living room, across the hardwood floors in the dining room, and onto kitchen tile until she stood at the open door of the family room, half a smile on her face.

"I know what you're thinking," she said. "You don't have to say anything. I know I'm a wonywart. I know it well and good." She shrugged her shoulders. "But ever since they left, I've been thinking— okay, worrying." She pulled her arms into a sweater. "And it's Ascension Day." She forced a smile. "It's Ascension Day, and he's not just born, like Christmas, and not just died, like Good Friday. And he's not just risen, like Easter." She pulled her purse up over her shoulder, tossed her hair back behind her turtleneck, and straightened her shoulders. "He's on high, on the throne, honey. He's king," she said.

He got to his feet, smiling.