When Churches Are Converted to Condos
by Kurt Mullen
She was small and old and she sat there in the evenings with a baseball game on the radio, in a folding chair that was her nest.
The last thing he wanted was to make her nervous.
No, no, it’s okay, he said, moving closer. I live just over there.
Just to put out his hand and say his name and say I live here, too. That was the idea behind that first trip across the street. Maybe if her grown sons were watching from the windows above, they would see he wasn’t such a jerk.
Her building was bulky and broad, vinyl green and godless, with TV antennae sprigging from the roof like a few fine hairs. He liked things that came from the past. He liked this town for buildings like this, and for the people who lived in this old way. It’s why he’d waved to her when he moved here, and it’s why he’d waved again. He thought he should be a part of it, this neighborhood, and from there, from that very thought, he plodded his way across the street.
When he got in front of her, it took her so long to find the knob, to turn down the old silver radio, that he knew then why she’d never waved back when he had waved to her. It took her so long to find that knurled plastic nob, and to manage it with time-stiffened fingers that he began to watch himself within this scene. A tall middle-aged man in a t-shirt and jeans, a slight belly over a new pair of shower slides standing over an old seated woman who could not see. Above him, all the windows whirred with fans, and from these windows there came the feeling of being watched. All summer it had been this way, for him. When he got out of his car and walked into the church it came to him, that feeling. When he walked out of the church and got into his car. It was always in front of them, those faces he could never see, the ones who lived in the building and never showed up out front. The ones who missed the days when their church was still operating. That’s what he figured. That they missed it being open for Christmas, Easter, weddings, funerals. No one would say this to him, what it meant that he was eating, showering, and sleeping, inside the old house of worship, but no one would talk to him either. It’s just what he’d been left to think. And they were watching.
Now he was looking into her face. It was a pillow of sunspots and delicate creases, and the eyes – her eyes – he could now see, they never really came to rest. Never came to focus on any one thing. Even after she found the knob and turned it down, her eyes kept casting about. He was flush with the fact, that this is what he’d been waving to. It was like throwing a ball into a canyon and expecting it to bounce back.
But they would chat. She was very bright, and on the subject of baseball she could be incisive. He would be nice to her now, and she would be nice to him. He’d come to understand, too, through her, that he’d been wrong about those grown men in the building. They didn’t belong to her. Though they had lived across from the church all their lives, they’d never been the kind of boys you’d see kneeling in prayer. The very thought of it made her go Ha. Not those boys, she said, they rode motorcycles and parked out back by the lattice, and they never used the front entrance here -- or anywhere when they could help it.
But if anyone missed that church it was her, and one day she just came out and said it.
Not because she wanted to get at him. But just because it was true.
Of course, you miss your church, he said, sympathetically.
But he was stung, too. By her words. Because they made him feel like he was on the wrong side of something. He never wanted to feel like he was on the wrong side of anything. Especially when it came to an elderly, faithful, and virtually sightless baseball fan.
But there were reasons it was no longer a church, and he had nothing to do with any of those reasons. If he hadn’t come along to buy the front half of it, someone else would have. So even as he plotted to secure a first friendship here in his new neighborhood, he felt a rugged frontier bursting out between them. Maybe some day they’d work their way through it. He would have to think about that. But for now, he saw no reason to pursue this conversation with her. He smiled and excused himself and said, as he always did now, Go team.
But when he got home, he couldn’t help it.
In his half of the erstwhile nave.
He couldn’t help but to imagine the way things had been. Before they ripped out the pews. Before they put up a wall halfway to the sacristy. The wall that cut him off from the drama of the altar. The wall that was necessary to make a back condo, one that would go to another buyer. From his seat he could see the old loft for the choir. A vestibule where he kicked off his shoes and left his umbrella when he bothered to use it. It was like no condo he’d ever seen, with sidewalls that soared with stained glass, and this great vaulted ceiling. And to think, his ex-wife had accused him of being incapable of change. That summer, that first season he lived there, in his very own place, in those first days of the rest of his life, he felt for the first time in a long time that there was just so much to see. It would have to start with what was near. He was determined it would be so. At least in some small way, they would begin to see him.
He’d park on her side of the street just to say hello.
When they smiled together at the end of the season, over the magic of those come-back wins, something was sealed between them. She said it was like this team had little angels on their shoulders going into the playoffs, and he said I know, I know, it’s destiny!
He wasn’t really thinking, or not thinking well. But no one was thinking that well, no one he knew who was getting a divorce was thinking all that well. Still, his friends who were single, it wasn’t all that long before they were talking about women. And the women he knew, they were no different. It was just something he noticed. There was this one friend who was not in his 30s any more and boasting about a girlfriend who was 28. He felt like telling him that his social life consisted of an occasional chat with an 82-year-old. About baseball. And he found it quite exciting. Oh, but that would just be for fun. Because all he wanted was a friend. Someone to talk baseball with. When he was arriving home from work, a familiar face, an anchor in the neighborhood. And if that made him weird, so what.
He could have her over sometime, he decided, his one friend. Have her over to his side of the street. Into the old church he’d welcome her, and he’d insist that in there she should show him around. This woman who’d gone to this church since she was a little girl. Should show him around. Of course she should. He was serious. He would listen to any story she wanted to tell him about this place. He liked the idea, of knowing those stories. He liked the past. He wanted to surround himself with the stories of this old place – this place that was old, but new to him.
There would be the unwelcome wall that separated them from the head of the church. He’d never seen the place intact, and he knew that for her it could be jarring. If she was taken aback, he would try to soften the blow. He would point out that the part of the church he lived in was the heart. Or something like that. Maybe he shouldn’t have her over. Maybe that was a bad idea. Maybe his first friend after getting divorced would be a sidewalk friend. A sidewalk friend would be just fine for now. A start. He could picture it, standing again on her side of the street. That’s the one I keep open, he’d tell her, pointing over to a small window in the front of the church before realizing she couldn’t see that far. I don’t even own a TV, he would tell her then. It’s your radio I listen to. They could be friends this way. He was all alone, after all. For now, he was. And she was always out there.
© Kurt Mullen, 2019
Kurt Mullen has been a roving reporter with no sense of direction, and an outdoors writer with fears of heights, water, nighttime, and snow. His short fiction and nonfiction have appeared in Bull, Airplane Reading, Flash Fiction Magazine, and 101words.org. He’s written features and essays for Powder, Paddler, Canoe & Kayak, Berkshire, and other magazines. He lives in Newburyport, Massachusetts, with his wife Amy and their Basset hound, Daphne.
When Churches are Converted to Condos was read by Don Carter on March 27th, 2019 for Memories & Mementos.