The Hymnal • Christopher Bowen

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She sits with knees crooked and crossed in church next to me, Sunday morning light coming through slanted windows at the sides of long pews. The dust in the air when it was empty, her hair white and in a bun while wearing the same glasses she peered over a newspaper with at the house. Her eyes light up when asked to rise for the hymn. She doesn’t use a hymnal, knows the words by heart, and her skin is paper-thin like a bound book of verses.

I never knew it to be otherwise.

I continue down the hallway, double doors with metal push arms latch behind me. There’s a thickness to the glass keeping the cold out during Christmas service, a heaviness to these wood doors. The eyes stretch down the hall farther than I’m capable of going. The linoleum reflects the Christianity in its gloss. I see myself aging as I go further—an embroidery, a photo, a drawing—posted to the exact age to believe in God before reaching her.

The tank of the blue Cadillac held twenty-eight gallons of gasoline. I knew that much. I fill it to the brim, even topping it off at the gas station down the street from my house the night before. We live in an old farmstead from the last century. I move into the ‘cottage,’ the cinder block farmhand house, by summer.

Grandma sings with us and the choir as the organist plays. We walk back to the Oldsmobile, the air conditioning already running, that sits in the closest parking spot to the building the whole church leaves vacant for her. I am old enough to start the engine.

I see my older cousin, a grown man now, walk past me into the sanctuary. The pulpit is beaming with tiered candles. He holds the sanctuary door open for me. My uncle and father are there, people I know who are going or gone. I get a glimpse of the tail of my grandmother’s Sunday dress escape out of the back door, past the pool they used to fill for baptisms on Easter behind the altar for communion and the palms that lay there.

I pick up Chad, his date and mine, going to prom. We’re in two rented, black tuxes with corsages puffing cigars going to pick them up. I finish half of mine and roll the electric window up. The smoke between us seems to never dissipate, there’s something between us that we’ll each never truly understand. Leather seats squeak as if speaking in tongues neither of us will know for years. I turn to face him past the rearview mirror before reaching the date’s driveway.

My shoes match her white, white dress.

Christopher Bowen is the author of the chapbook We Were Giants, the novella When I Return to You, I Will Be Unfed, and the non-fiction, Debt. He blogs from Burning River.

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