Ambiguous Blessings

By: Neil Ellis Orts


Douglas woke up from his nap in the easy chair but he kept his eyes closed, experiencing the memories of the chair, the smell, the worn armrests, the sunken seat, all of it. How many naps had he taken in this chair? How many books had he read curled up in it? How many hours of television watched from it, how many sullen moods nursed in it, how many wrestling matches with Brian, his older brother, lost in its cushions?

How long had it been since a new good memory was created here?

Just after a nap like that, under the influence of the turkey dinner's tryptophan buzz, as he liked to call it, the old farm house almost felt like home again. He stood up and stretched and looked around the high-ceilinged room. His father and brother were both asleep, despite whatever football game that was on TV being the game they had been looking forward to. His father, still handsome with his short-cropped silver hair and developed jowls, snored in his rocker, his large farmer's hands folded over his large stomach. Brian, a dark-haired, heftier version of Douglas, was sprawled out on the floor. They were Thanksgiving Day football fans in their full glory. Douglas left the room.

He walked down the hallway and glanced into Brian's old room. Brian's wife, Celia, was stretched out on the bed in there, showing the most sense of any of them. Douglas went into his old room, next to Brian's, sat on his bed and started putting on his hiking shoes. The room was much like it had been when he left it 15 years earlier. His mother wasn't one to touch anything and he wasn't one to change much on his visits. The walls were a running history of his interests between the late years of junior high and college. The "prayer reminder" with the glow in the dark cross was where it always had been, next to a plaque he had received as a confirmation gift. There were the religious pictures, Jesus knocking on the door and Sallman's Head of Christ, juxtaposed with the posters of The Six Million Dollar Man, Neil Diamond as The Jazz Singer, and the cast of the first Star Trek movie. Douglas finished tying his shoelaces and looked up at it all and wondered at who he was, how all this stuff had shaped him. Maybe who he was had shaped this collection? Chicken and egg, he decided without deciding if he was still the boy who had put up all those posters. He was shaking his head, bemused, as he walked back into the hallway, nearly running into his mother.

"Oh, you woke up," she said matter of factly. She was a short woman in her mid-sixties, dark hair with only the slightest hint of grey threads. The housedress of the morning had been doffed in favor of a modest knit pants and flower print blouse combination. "I'm about to go to Granny's. Do you want to come with me?"

"No, Mama, I'll go with Brian and Papa later," he said. "I want to go for a walk, see if I can walk off some of this turkey."

"Well, come as soon as you can. You know she was disappointed that you have to go back right away tomorrow."

"I know, Mama, but Augustana Lutheran Church is going to want its pastor come Sunday. And their pastor is going to need Saturday to write his sermon."

"Ach, well, I don't think Granny would have encouraged you so much if she had known being a pastor would take you to Nebraska. Your visits are too far in between."

"I know, Mama," Douglas answered, knowing Granny wasn't the only one being spoken for. "Maybe I'll try to transfer back into Texas. In a few years."

The two walked through the living room together, into the kitchen.

"You don't let Papa sleep all afternoon. I don't want him tossing and turning all night," she said as she hefted a platter of turkey, dressing, and sweet potato leftovers. These were going to her mother, who no longer left her home and no longer wanted gatherings at her house for the holidays, but would welcome the leftovers and visitors later in the day.

"If he isn't awake when I come back from my walk, I'll wake him."

"Well then, don't walk too long." She headed out the door and into her car. Douglas watched from the screen door and soon, she was down the gravel road, out of sight.

Douglas turned away from the door just long enough to grab a couple of the chocolate chip cookies that were in a jar on the counter and he then stepped out into the Texas November air. It was cool, but not so cold that he couldn't have brought a pair of shorts along. He hadn't thought he would have use of them since there was snow on the ground in Nebraska.

He stood on the steps munching his mother's cookies, looking over the pasture land that sprawled out to the south of the house. The playground of his youth beckoned him to wander but it also seemed to have a barrier that warned him not to do so. There might be an ache waiting for him there. Douglas heeded the warning and opted to sit on the bottom step and enjoy the quiet. It was a holiday, so he refused to think about Sunday's sermon, but he couldn't help his mind wandering.

There was a time that he loved holidays in this house. Then, there was a time he hated to come home and made excuses not to. Now, he came without reservation, but it was never as good as he hoped it would be. As he sat there trying to be thankful for his family, he couldn't name what it was he hoped for each time he came home.

Chip, the collie dog that helped his folks with the cows, came up and nuzzled Douglas's arm. Douglas mindlessly patted the dog's ears. So much had changed since Douglas last lived in this house. Chip, already past mature and soon in need of a younger dog to help him gather in the cattle, was the first dog on this farm that was not Douglas'.

"Well, Chipper, we all get old." Douglas was about to lean back with his elbows on the step behind him when he heard someone at the screen door. He leaned forward and Brian squeezed through the space Douglas afforded him. Without a word, Brian sat down next to Douglas, making Douglas wonder what Brian wanted. They were no longer so close that they just chatted.

"The game over?" Douglas asked.

"May as well be. The score is 48 to 10 in the fourth quarter."

"Who's winning?"

"Do you care?"

"Not really."

Chip had defected to the more familiar Brian, who knew the places to scratch. Douglas pulled a clump of grass that was growing out from under the steps and began gently knocking the dirt from the roots.

"So, Doug," Brian began but did not finish.

"What?"

"I gotta ask you something." The two did not look at each other.

"So ask."

Brian looked up from the dog and down the road on which his mother had just driven away. "So, Doug. Are you queer or what?"

Douglas didn't flinch, just started separating the leaves of grass. He smiled crookedly and raised an eyebrow. "Why do you ask?"

"It's been . . . mentioned." Brian started paying more attention to Chip again.

Douglas nodded his head sideways a little, not neglecting his clump of grass. "By whom? In what context?"

"Papa, mostly. Mama won't talk about it." Brian played with Chip's collar. "Papa, mostly."

"What brought this up?" Douglas stopped separating the leaves and just listened.

"Different things." Brian looked up at the overcast sky and rubbed his neck with his left hand. "Remember that pastor we had here four or five years ago? You were still in seminary. His name was Tom Hilger. He didn't stay long."

"Vaguely."

"Well, he went on to a church in Houston, but was kicked out last winter." Brian looked at his brother. "His church found out he had a boyfriend."

"So Papa thinks all pastors are gay now?"

"No, no, no." Brian looked away from his brother again. "It's just that Papa liked this guy a lot and was hit hard by the news. He even went to see him. He wanted to find out the truth from the guy himself. Papa came back from that meeting a little confused, angry, I don't know. But, well, you know, Papa's still pretty active in the church here. He ended up going to the synod assembly as a delegate or whatever this spring. There was some to-do about gay pastors and gayness in general. This Hilger guy was there talking about what happened." Brian sat still just a moment, his attempt at a dramatic pause. "Papa came back thinking he sees some similar things between you and Hilger."

The brothers were silent for about thirty long seconds and Douglas decided he preferred to break the silence first. "So, is Papa still shaken?"

"I don't know. Maybe a little." Brian leaned back on his elbows and started watching Douglas. "But Papa has started talking like it's no big deal. Or shouldn't be. He says, 'all I know is that man was a damn fine pastor, regardless of what all else.' Anyway, Papa defends him down at the feed store."

"Good for Papa." Douglas felt his hope coming into focus. "And Mama?"

"Well, like I said, Mama don't like to talk about it."

"Huh." Douglas started to separate his grass again, his brow now furrowed. "So, are you the inquisitor, sent to find out the truth about Douglas?"

"Nobody sent me." Brian leaned forward again and looked intently at his brother. "But I think Papa would feel better knowing one way or another if you're queer."

Douglas would not look at Brian and started to shred a single blade of grass with his thumbnail. "Well, I'm sure you and Papa will discuss it again so tell him this." Brian did not move, but Douglas felt as if Brian's stare were closing in. "Tell Papa that I know a handful of gay and lesbian clergy. Tell him that they are, for the most part, good and faithful pastors of the church. Tell him that their call to be pastors of the church is so strong that they are willing to be pastors despite the witch hunts. Tell him that they often love their churches so much that they won't be honest about who they are for fear of destroying their work. It's that important to them. They struggle mightily to live with integrity while the church forces them to be so careful with who they are." Here, Douglas paused, trying to choose words that still would not be right. "Tell Papa that they have to be so careful that they sometimes have to lie to the people closest to them to protect their ministries." It was a speech that Douglas had given before, in other circumstances. It had not been this hard before.

Brian continued to stare at Douglas but did not speak. Douglas had torn the blade of grass into as narrow ribbons as he could manage and then turned to look at his brother, their faces less than a foot apart. "I think we should wake up Papa and Celia and head over to Granny's. Mama will be looking for us soon." With that, Douglas stood up, stretched and rubbed his stomach. "Man, that was good turkey."

Later that night, after the visit with Granny, Douglas lay in his childhood bed, the window to the left of his bed wide open. The air coming in was cold but fragrant with the dry smells of autumn. He pulled up the quilt his Granny had made and looked out on the moonlit pasture, the spindly mesquites in silhouette, clumps of more substantial trees to the east. He saw the shadow of a cow in the distance and listened to coyotes howl somewhere even farther off.

The next day he would fly back to his congregation and continue his work as pastor and write a sermon for Sunday and still question whether or not he was thankful for his family. Maybe he was a little more than before. For Papa, definitely.

He fell asleep praying for Pastor Hilger, for the loss of his ministry, for his uninvited courage. Douglas prayed for himself, for a courage that he could own by choice.


Other Writings By Neil Ellis Orts:

Morality and Me


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