Beulah treads carefully across the church lot. Frozen slicks cover the asphalt and sidewalks. The dogwoods are bare and ice coats them down to the last twig like blown glass. It seems to her that a single clap of her red hands might bring the whole thing crashing down like a severed chandelier. She grips the cold door handle and pulls. It’s Saturday. The church is empty. Only the smell, threadbare carpet and stale sugar, greets her. She’s come to see the pastor. All week long she’s pictured how their conversation might go, but now, here, surrounded by actual walls and floors and ceilings, self doubt floods her. Her questions seem selfish, her motives childish. She considers fleeing, but what good would it do? Imagine how embarassing it would be to see the pastor tomorrow in the foyer before the Sunday service. Besides the eerie red glow of an emergency exit sign overhead, the only light in the church comes from the pastor’s office door which waits ajar at the end of the hall. She draws a breath and raps it with her knuckles.
“Come on in,” the pastor says in his calm practiced voice.
Beulah smiles awkwardly and takes a seat. The pastor’s hair is grayer and thinner than it looks in the framed photos on the walls, Kodachrome handshakes with district leaders in smoky prescription lenses and camel-brown corduroy. Books bear witness from floor-to-ceiling shelves on all sides, Wesleyan hymnals, outdated biblical translations, the complete life works of forgotten theologians bound in blue and gold bindings, old paperbacks for new fathers needing permission to punish their children, devotionals to guide the mouths of the spiritually blank.
“So tell me what’s been going on,” the pastor says.
She swallows some doubt and goes into it, “During service, after we sing hymns, when it’s time to give testimonies, I hear people give thanks to God for so many things, for their father’s cancer going into remission, for closing on a new house, for their grandbaby getting out of the NICU. They say these things are answers to prayer. But how could that be? Is God infusing the chemo? Is God changing the tape on the feeding tube? Well, they say that God is working through these doctors and nurses, that they’re human vessels carrying out his plan.”
The pastor is touching his short gray beard, listening.
She continues, “But why then is God helping only these people? Is it because they prayed? What’s so special about them? What makes them deserving when others aren’t? Is God reaching his mighty arm past whole continents of raped villages and mudslides and starving children only to help Bob and Judy get a favorable fixed rate on a thirty-year term? Don’t those villages pray? Aren’t those children begging God every gray morning that today will be the day food comes? Is this what we’re supposed to believe? It’s absurd. It’s obscene.”
The pastor puts an elbow on an armrest and props up his chin. “First of all,” he says, “I want to thank you for coming here and sharing this with me. I assure you that you are not alone in these vexing questions. The Bible says that Jacob wrestled with God. I myself wrestled with these same questions, years ago, when I was about your age. Can I tell you a story?”
She nods, trying her best not to be too open to conviction.
“You’re driving down the highway in a car. It’s your car. It’s not new, it’s a used car, an old car, a gift from family. It’s your first car. It’s ugly, has a rusted door, rattles at top speed, but it gets you where you need to go. Suddenly one day it breaks down and you’re late for work. You get it repaired at great expense. It fails again and you miss a job interview. This can’t go on. What do you do?” he asks rhetorically. “It’s time for a new car.”
Against her best judgement, she lets the metaphor soften her anger. Maybe it’s the pastor’s dulcet baritone, or the faded comforts of the vintage furniture and shag carpeting, but she finds herself sinking into it like a medicinal bath, unpleasant but not entirely unwelcome.
“I believe what you’re feeling is that you have outgrown the simple faith of childhood, that you’re ready for something different, something more…” he seems to be searching delicately for the appropriate phrasing, “…nuanced. It is possible to have gratitude in this life without ascribing every fortunate moment to divine intervention or blaming every tragedy on a lack of devotion. We know so little, down here, and have to be contented by our faith that in the fullness of time his plan will be revealed.”
She considers for a moment. Some of the heat that brought her here flares back.
“Then why,” she asks, “do you permit all those testimonies, Sunday after Sunday, thanking God for the many uneven kindnesses he capriciously doles out among so few? Why don’t you intervene, set an example? You called it the faith of childhood. Are these adults or children?”
He tents his hands by the finger tips and shifts in his chair. His words are even more delicate now.
“There are some lessons,” he replies, “that a person may never be ready to hear.”
He asks her if they can pray together, and she assents. He holds her hands across the desk and closes his eyes. She keeps her eyes open, watches the way he bows his gray head, notices the whiskers in his ears and the flakes on his shirt. She sees his wedding band, his finger so swollen now around the metal that it would be impossible to remove it, and remembers how it was only a few years ago that his wife died when a drunk teenager entered the freeway from the wrong direction.
There are no rings on Beulah‘s fingers, nor would there be in any forseeable future. Her mother’s condition leaves no room for a life outside of work. Oh, how Momma’s hands feel now when she holds them, gnarled and stiff like dried roots, how they tremble with age and pain, how Momma’s fragile skin breaks open over the knuckles. It’s nearly dinner time in the nursing home. Momma has to be fed like a child. The nurses there don’t feed her well. They leave too much food on the tray, impatient with how slowly she chews. They leave green beans smeared in the corners of her mouth and bread crumbs on her gown. Water dribbles down her wagging chin and soaks her bedsheets because no one places a napkin on Momma’s lap, not like Beulah does. She can’t bear to leave Momma alone in that place. Beulah leaves the house by quarter-to-five every morning so she can spend two hours before work bathing her, changing her linens, feeding her breakfast and coffee. Beulah will tell her about the weather, pass along news from distant cousins many timezones away. Momma won’t speak, she’ll just lie there making a wet bup-bup-bup-bup sound and squint at the drop-tile ceiling. Beulah will kiss Momma’s forehead and leave for work. The young nurse will stick out her lower lip and blow her dyed bangs when she thinks Beulah can’t see. It will be the same after work. Beulah will return and clean. She’ll wipe bits of lunch from Momma’s cheeks, brush her dentures, scrub the bedpan, disinfect the shower chair, fluff the pillows, let in some light, make fresh coffee, and feed Momma her dinner. They’ll watch whatever is on TV together, anything with a laugh track. Momma will fall asleep before the evening news, and Beulah will sit there a while, holding Momma’s knotted silky hand.
The pastor squeezes Beulah‘s hands and says “Amen,” and Beulah echoes it. He offers to see her out, but she declines. She walks through the dim red light of the emergency exit sign and emerges onto the slick cold of the parking lot. Freezing rain has started up again and it’s beginning to stick to her windshield. She gets it cleared away and drives carefully to the nursing home.
There’s an ambulance out front. Its lights are spinning wildly, scattering red and blue panic in the rain. Beulah rushes into the building. She ignores the front desk nurse who’s demanding she sign the guest log. Another nurse is walking out of her mother’s room and Beulah almost tackles her as she sprints in. Her mother is lying there, alive and awake, making the bup-bup-bup-bup sound. Beulah throws her arms around her mother, hugging her through a pile of hospital blankets.
“Oh, Momma,” Beulah says.
The nurse has left the television tuned to a talk show at full volume. Every other word is bleeped out and someone is throwing a chair at the audience. Beulah switches it off and goes into the bathroom to wash Momma’s glasses. From the bathroom she hears Momma softly screaming, like a newborn deer bleating for its mother. Beulah comes out and sees an old man, another patient, has wandered in, lost and confused. He’s trying to climb into the bed. “My darlin!” he says. “My darlin!” Beulah yanks him out of the bed and sends him down the hall like a wind-up soldier. He’s missing a slipper and wobbles back and forth with each each step.
“Paw-Paw?” a voice croaks from Momma’s bed.
“Maw-Maw? Paw-Paw? Is that you?” her mother says.
Beulah holds her hand and says, “Yes, it’s me.”
Momma hasn’t spoken since nine months ago when she looked out the window and said, “Is it gonna rain?” Momma raises her trembling hand, and Beulah helps guide it. She brings Beulah‘s hand close to her mouth and kisses it.
“Paw-Paw,” Momma says. “Please pray for me.”
“Yes, Momma,” Beulah says. “What shall we pray for?”
“Please pray that God won’t let me lose faith.”
“Okay, Momma, we’ll pray.” Beulah begins praying aloud and her mother squints her eyes at the ceiling again and again starts making the bup-bup-bup-bup sound through her wagging jaw. A tear traces a wrinkle in her old cheek. She falls asleep without eating her supper.
The drive home takes Beulah past the church. A heavy hauler has spun out on the ice and is jack-knifed up ahead. Traffic in both directions is at standstill. Beulah waits there idling for a long time. She looks over at the church and sees the light switch off in the pastor’s office. A minute later he’s tip-toeing across the slippery parking lot to his car. It’s a factory white 1965 Ford Mustang. The paint is still fresh and brilliant all these decades later, except along the passenger side where the drunk teenager’s car swiped it, crunching the door. The door looks desperately hammered back into shape, but is imperfect. It’s rippled and repainted in a color that doesn’t exactly match the original. The windshield is caked with solid ice. The pastor is hacking away at the ice with a long scraper, wildly stabbing with it like a bayonette. He swings the scraper too hard and his feet slip. The scraper tumbles across the engine hood. He pulls himself up and examines every inch of the hood as if frantically looking for nicks in the paint. He picks up the scraper and hurls it again into the ice, chip by tiny chip.