As I prepared my head to go through the windshield, I knew I was doomed. What has it been—a year since I’ve attended church? God wouldn’t lift a finger to save a lost soul like me.
My wife slammed on the brakes just in time. Our car came to a halt inches from the tow-truck in front of us. Every letter of the truck’s fading McCain-Palin bumper sticker stared back at me. Fucking Republicans, I thought. They’re to blame for everything.
“Do you know how ridiculous this is?” Susan asked once our heads stopped violently jerking.
Was it the traffic on Route 3 that was ridiculous? The fact that people would actually vote for that gun-toting Alaskan nut? Then I thought maybe she was referring to her atrocious driving. But then it hit me that the source of her outrage was the newspaper in my lap.
“Newspapers don’t lie,” I told her. “I’m pretty sure that’s illegal.”
“Maybe not illegal, but it’s definitely unethical.”
“Think about it for a second.” Her knuckles started to turn white from squeezing the life out of the steering wheel. “Of all the places in the world the Vatican could display an ancient relic, why would they choose Clifton, New Jersey?”
I consulted the advertisement for the tenth time: “Come worship the Shroud of Turin at the Monastery of the Holy Face. Show your dedication to the Lord.”
I reread every word carefully. I checked for a comma, period—anything—that would render the advertisement with a meaning other than what I assigned to it. But no matter how hard I looked, no matter what perspective I took, the paper was crystal clear.
“Call it faith,” I said.
She grabbed the newspaper out of my hands and rested it on the wheel while waiting for the traffic to ease up. “Just look at the size of the ad. Shouldn’t such a momentous occasion demand an announcement bigger than a communion wafer?”
Our procession down Route 3 became funereal. Brake lights were lined up as far as the eye could see. My wife’s driving made it all the more painful. The braking. The speeding up. The braking. I was getting nauseous with the constant false hope that things were going to get better. Before I threw up all over myself, I snatched the newspaper from her and threw it into the backseat.
“Keep your eyes on the road, please,” I told her.
The newspaper started rustling behind my ear. Kara flipped through the pages with all the impatience of a newly-anointed adolescent.
“What the hell is a shroud?” she asked.
“Watch your mouth,” I hollered over my shoulder.
Fifty yards ahead, cars in the left lane were forced to merge in the middle to avoid a fender-bender. One of the drivers was giving his account of things to a Clifton police officer. The other driver leaned against his car, waiting to tell his side of the story: the side he was certain was the truth.
Momentum returned once we bypassed the accident. Cars merged back into the left lane, freeing up drivers to accelerate to their hearts’ content.
Susan stayed put in the right lane. Some of the drivers that sped past gave us dirty looks as if we were to blame for this nightmare.
“Can you help me out here?” she asked. “Where am I turning?”
I checked the MapQuest directions. “It should be a quarter-mile on the right.”
“What’s the name of the street?”
“It doesn’t say.”
“What do you mean it doesn’t say?”
“The directions just say turn right after driving seven-point-nine miles on Route 3.”
I watched the odometer tick away. After a quick calculation in my head, I pointed to the street right past the Exxon station. “I think you turn there.”
“Trust me. Turn there.”
The road took us along a slow and meandering incline up the mountains overlooking Clifton, Paterson, and further still, Manhattan. Soon the skyscrapers and smokestacks disappeared, and the surrounding forest sealed us in completely.
As we spiraled up this corkscrew of a driveway, all I could think about was the black-and-white opening to Night of the Living Dead where that beast of a Pontiac crept through the barren cemetery, culminating with Johnny cautioning his sister, “They’re coming to get you Barbara.”
That line echoed in my head the further up the mountain we climbed until a much more sinister line left Susan’s lips.
“What are you getting us into Phil?”
A sign greeted us at the top of the mountain. Carved into a slab of rotting wood nailed to a thick oak tree were the words “Monastery of the Holy Face.” On the opposite side of the road was a statue of Jesus congratulating our arrival out of the darkness.
“See,” I declared. “I told you it was the right turn.”
“Your nose is bleeding,” Susan said.
I dabbed at my nostril. Only a few drops of blood appeared on my finger—nothing that required any immediate attention. I simply licked the blood off my finger and returned my eyes to the road.
What we discovered on the top of the mountain wasn’t a multitude of pilgrims flocking to Mecca, but a desolate parking lot.
“This is it?” Susan asked. She unbuckled her seatbelt and peered through her window. “Where is everyone?”
“I don’t know. Maybe we’re early.”
The three of us got out of the car. I led my family down a cobblestone walkway with the hope that an invasion of cars would arrive behind us at any moment.
While Kara wandered ahead of us with her iPod for company, my wife said, “Don’t forget I’m going out tonight.”
The monastery was at the end of the cobblestone path. Its brick façade and mission-style design made it look more like the Alamo than a place of worship. Judging from its location with such an elevation and advantageous vistas, I figured this building once served as both a chapel and defensive fortification, designed to repel invaders who exalted strange, foreign deities.
“Who are you going out with?” I asked.
“Vivienne. She broke up with that French guy, and now she wants a ladies’ night out.”
“So she wants to get shitfaced.”
Susan met Vivienne at the bowling alley where we had Kara’s birthday party last year. I got a vibe from Vivienne right away. Late forties, heavy smoker, had a tattoo of a rose bush on her ankle, and hadn’t stayed with a man for more than six months. Soon after they met, Susan got herself a tattoo of a sunflower on her hip.
What husband wouldn’t start to worry?
Before entering the monastery, I looked up at the parapet and imagined a ghost of a Mexican soldier aiming his blunderbuss at me. I quickly dodged the buckshot, grabbed Susan by the arm, and darted inside the sanctuary.
My sneakers nearly got caught on a run in the narthex’s blood-red carpet. Years of untreated foot traffic had turned it into a conglomerate of stains, frayed sections, and fading dye.
The ceiling was even in worse shape. An entire portion of drywall was patched over with the skillset of a novice. For a second, I feared the ceiling would collapse on our heads before we had a chance to witness history.
Things didn’t add up. Where was the opulence that made Catholicism such a spectacle? The grandeur? The one thing about Zion Lutheran of Maywood that made me regret being born a lousy Protestant was its dullness. Truth was, the church bored me to death.
Pastor’s stale sermons occasionally caused me to flirt with the idea of becoming a Catholic so that my faith could be shielded with rituals and exotic paraphernalia. The saints, holy water, censor swung by an altar boy—they all seemed so alluring. But despite the urge to be surrounded by this decadence, I never found the courage to cheat on Zion Lutheran. The guilt would’ve been too much. So I simply stopped going.
I walked towards a collection of ten photographs that were prominently displayed on the wall. Each depicted a different section of the shroud with a text box below elaborating upon Jesus’ torment. I felt like I was in the lobby of a museum, surrounded by brief glimpses of the great wonders that waited down the hall.
“Come over here, Kara.”
When my daughter sidled up alongside me, I yanked out her earbuds. “Remember what Pastor taught you in Sunday School?”
“Pastor didn’t teach us anything,” she replied, smacking ever so loudly on the gum Susan gave her in the car.
“I know for a fact that Pastor taught you about the Shroud of Turin. Remember how Jesus was buried in a cloth that captured the energy of him coming back to life?”
“I guess that rings a bell.”
I traced my finger along the contours of Jesus’ face. “Well, here are his eyes, his mouth, beard, the crown of thorns.” I crept in closer. The air from my nose nearly fogged up the glass. “And if you look hard enough, you can see little drops of blood from where the thorns pierced his skin.”
“Why would they bury him with thorns still attached to his head?” Kara asked.
I searched the text under the photo for the answer to a legitimately valid question, but before I could tell Kara her father didn’t know everything about Christianity, Susan nudged her way between us and said, “If you were a king, sweetie, wouldn’t you want to be buried with your crown?”
I turned to my wife to thank her for her quick thinking but all I could see was the back of her head as she walked with Kara into the chapel.
Standing alone in the narthex, I was struck by a growing suspicion that my faith in the advertisement might’ve been misguided. If a team of white-gloved bodyguards didn’t greet me on the other side, then I would have no choice but to concede defeat.
Before following my family inside, I stared at a painting of Mount Golgotha hanging over the chapel door. Two crooks were nailed to a cross on each side of Jesus. One was a believer. The other wasn’t.
Both died the same way.
A red glow enveloped Kara’s face. She waved her hand over the candles, stirring up the air around them.
“What do you do here?” she asked.
“It’s an offertory,” I told her.
“And that means…”
Susan took over. “You put a coin in the box, light a candle, and say a prayer.”
Kara dug into her purse and pulled out a nickel. “What do you pray for?”
“Anything you want God to answer,” I said.
She held the nickel halfway into the coin slot. Something prevented her fingers from releasing their hold. Uncertainly, perhaps. Or the fear that God could actually be listening to her inner-most thoughts. The responsibility proved too great and she handed the nickel to her mother.
“Here. Mom,” Kara said. “You pray.”
Susan kept her arms folded across her chest. “That’s okay. I can’t think of anything right now.”
Kara then handed me the coin. “You say a prayer, Dad.”
It was hard to decide what to pray for. World peace? Forget it. Everyone prayed for peace, but look at this planet. School shootings, gang bangers, and let’s not forget that somewhere in a cave right now, Osama bin Laden was planning the next great attack on the infidels.
That’s the trick with prayers. You have to be specific. God doesn’t respond to empty generalities. What does world peace mean? What does it look like? The same with winning the lottery. What do you plan on doing with all that money? How will it fulfill you? That’s what you have to pray for—where in life that you need fulfillment.
Something came to me as I watched Susan and Kara sit in an empty pew in the front row. I lit the candle and then asked God to keep watch over my wife so that she wouldn’t make any more friends who smoked, had questionable tattoos, or were named Vivienne.
I defended my faith as long as I could against the barrage coming at me from all angles. The effort was valiant, but in the end, reason prevailed. The Shroud of Turin wasn’t in Clifton, New Jersey. The ‘shroud’ mentioned in The Bergen Record was nothing more than a crappy replica encapsulated in a crooked frame behind the alter.
I couldn’t decide what was worse: the cash-stricken archdiocese peddling cheap sensationalism, or being gullible enough to take the bait. At any moment, the entire world would break out laughing at the poor son of a bitch who fell for the joke.
And who else would get the ball rolling but Susan. She pointed towards the alter and laughed at something she told our daughter. She then tried to get our daughter in on the fun, but Kara—my little sweetheart—she couldn’t see what was so amusing. She walked away from her mother with the slightest look of disapproval on her face.
“Can we eat now?” she asked me by the offertory, where my flame was still going strong.
I wrapped my arm around her shoulder and escorted Kara out the door. “I’m so hungry, I can eat a horse.”
To the victor comes the spoils.
The first sign of life on this graveyard of a mountaintop came strolling across the grass. From afar, the nun looked like a ghoul in search of warm flesh. As she drew near, it became clear her destination was the gift shop at the other end of the property. The way she dragged her right foot made it seem she either had a peg-leg or polio. Who knows what type of health insurance these people get.
I asked Susan, “Do you mind setting up the picnic while I take Kara with me into the gift shop?”
“What do you need to see in there?”
“Maybe they have a nice snow globe of the Crucifixion,” I said. “To commemorate where we were when I made a fool of myself.”
“We all make mistakes.”
Kara and I almost made it to the gift shop when Susan hollered, “Don’t be long. I have to start getting ready soon.”
The gift shop was nothing more than a glorified summer cabin. The floorboards outside the door creaked below our feet. One wrong step, forget it. Off to the infirmary.
I turned to Kara and said, “You must think your dad is a real moron.”
Just when I thought she was going to shut me out by putting in her earbuds, she stashed them in her pocket and said, “It’s okay. I saw the newspaper. It was deceptive.”
“You think so?”
“Sure.” Then she asked, “What are we doing tonight?”
“What do you mean?”
“Mom is going out with her friend. What are we doing?”
“We can go to the movies. We can get ice cream. We can do anything.”
Kara thought this over. “Can we see Zombieland?”
“How old are you?”
With a shake of her head: “Thirteen, Dad. Almost fourteen.”
“Almost fourteen, huh. Should we ask Mother Superior what she thinks?”
“I don’t think Mom—”
“Not Mom, brainiac. Sister Cabrini in there.”
“Something tells me she wouldn’t approve of all that blood and guts.”
I held the door open for Kara. The wind chime attached to the doorjamb jingled a welcoming tune.
“I guess we’ll just have to keep it to ourselves.”
The smell of stale fish and incense pelted us on the way inside. By the cash register, the nun snacked on a tuna sandwich, which she washed down with a bottle of Stewart’s root beer.
My head bumped into an entire squadron of crucifixes dangling from the rafters. The crosses were made of all possible materials—wood, yarn, plastic—and in a variety of sizes. No matter where I stepped, the agony of Jesus’ sacrifice followed.
I expected Kara to be making sarcastic comments under her breath. The absence of her humor made this place intolerable.
I found her staring out a window caked in incense grime.
“Everything okay, sweetie?”
She turned around, and with a heaviness I had never seen before—a heaviness that sank my heart—she asked me, “Do you believe Mom?”
“Do you think she’s telling the truth? You know, about hanging out with her friend.”
“I have no reason not to believe her.”
“But why does she have to go out so much?”
The smell of tuna intensified to the point of queasiness. I was ready to gag but caught myself when the nun appeared beside us.
“All saints are twenty-five percent off today,” she said, and when this news provoked no response from my daughter and I, the nun continued, “Would you like to see our new collection of St. Anthony statues that just arrived from Italy?”
She was such a tiny thing. Frail was what she was. I pitied her.
“Maybe next time,” I told the nun.
I wanted to tell my daughter that whatever thought was germinating in her head, she needed to smother it before it grew into something bigger. And there were other things I wanted to say but lost my chance. She was already on her way out the door.
“Where are you going?” I asked.
“I’ll be outside,” she said, and the door slammed shut behind her.
The overwhelming display of faith emanating from every nook and cranny made it difficult to breathe. My only salvation was plucking a silver crucifix from off its hook, putting a ten-dollar bill into the nun’s hand, and darting the hell out of there before I had to make a choice between breathing and believing.
A glob of mayonnaise seeped out of the side of my roast beef sandwich. It landed with a thud on the butcher paper below. Normally a reliable delicatessen, Ted’s seemed to have lost its way. It was as if they decided—without consulting their customers—that a thick slather of mayo on every sandwich was what they needed to stay ahead of the competition.
Susan, though, couldn’t get enough of her ham and Swiss. Before I could make it through the first half of mine, she was well on her way with finishing up her second. Her eyes then honed in on the brown bag beside me.
“Are you going to tell me what’s in the bag?” she asked.
“Just a little something I got you.”
Susan pulled the crucifix out of the bag. “That’s thoughtful of you. I can’t remember the last time I wore a cross.”
“You don’t have to wear it every day.”
She tried on the necklace. Jesus was crammed into her bosom for a brief moment before Susan turned the crucifix around, but I could only imagine the look on our Messiah’s face as he dreamt of spending a night nestled in my wife’s breasts.
“I love it,” she said. “Thank you so much, Phil.”
She rubbed the top of my hand with her thumb. My defenses were still on high alert, but as far as I could discern, her appreciation was genuine. Just a few minutes ago, she was annoyed for being dragged here and having it interfere with her evening plans. And now, this. The confusion pressed down on my forehead like a nagging sinus infection, and I wondered when the levee was going to burst wide open.
“You know what?” she said. “It’s been a while since we prayed as a family. Why don’t we give it a shot?”
“Do we have to?” Kara asked.
Susan added, “C’mon. It’ll be nice. When in Rome, right?”
She held her arms outright with her palms facing upward. I took her hand, although—truth be told—I didn’t know who this person was.
Kara rolled her eyes, but when she realized none of her friends were around to witness the embarrassment of sharing a communion with God and your family, she caved in and completed the circle.
A beatific smile formed on my wife’s face. Even with the overcast, she looked radiant. You would’ve thought she just finished wading through the river Jordan the way she lifted her head and started thanking God for everything under the sun—the picnic, our health, her new necklace.
At first her fervor seemed as if she was trying to throw me off the scent. Or the guilt she was carrying became so great that she needed deliverance from the Lord. But the more she rambled on about her wonderful husband and his generous gift, the more it did something to me. I felt all the suspicions clogging me up for months break free, like somebody took a plunger to my head. To think I doubted her. This woman looked committed to her faith. To me. Any thoughts to the contrary were the Devil’s work. The deluge of mental toxins continued to pour out of me and I didn’t want this purge to end.
Then I tasted blood. My tongue crept upward and lapped at a pool of bitter iron seeping from my nose. One swipe across my face with the back of my hand painted my skin red.
“Christ,” I muttered and then frantically searched for a napkin before I got blood all over
Susan grabbed a stack of napkins from the basket. Her swift attention made it seem I was hemorrhaging instead of dealing with pesky nosebleed.
“Lay down,” she ordered and ushered me onto the blanket with the affection of Mary Magdalene.
“Is Dad going to be okay?” Kara asked.
“It’s really not—”
Susan cut me off by clamping the napkins on my nose. “Hold these and apply pressure.”
Only God knows why I get these nosebleeds. I’ve had them since I was a kid, and they only last a few minutes. No big deal, really. But people always think I’m dying when they see the blood. Teachers, bus drivers, coworkers. The reaction is always the same:
What the hell’s wrong with you?
Like clockwork, the bleeding stopped. Whatever hole inside me that sprang a leak was plugged back up. Life could return to normal. But that napkin! The blood! I draped it over my face to hide my shame for dragging my family to this wretched place.
“Hey, look,” Kara said. A fit of giggles slowly took control of her. She was damn near hysterics.
“What is it, sweetie?” Susan asked.
In between her laughs, Kara managed to get out, “Dad has a shroud over his head.”
From under this blood-soaked cloth, everything felt so alive. Spring was coming. Soon tulips would start blooming, birds would sing praise for surviving winter, and the earth would quake to wake up civilization from its slumber. All that was left for me to do was relax, take a deep breath, and wait patiently for the Resurrection.
Christopher is a husband, father, and full-time clinical social worker living in Bridgewater, New Jersey. His fiction has appeared in Crêpe & Penn, New Reader Magazine, Junto Magazine, The Ocotillo Review, Thing Magazine, Subtle Fiction, The Raven’s Perch, Inwood Indiana, Fictive Dream, Spelk, Firefly Magazine, The Molotov Cocktail, and No Extra Words. His work has also been featured on Wandsworth Radio in the UK.