Thursday, November 21, 2013

Shrinking Pines

His name was Thomas. We called him Tommy. At the church where I lived when I was a boy Tommy did volunteer work at nights in our dormitory. At 10:00 P.M., long after lights out, Tommy would walk quietly into our dorm and mop the floors and scrub the toilets, and afterwards he'd stand outside on the porch for a good twenty minutes before getting back to work. He never talked to anyone. Tommy was somewhat of a mystery.

                We were all orphans. Some of us were unfortunate enough to remember our parents, but most of us were raised inside the church. The church was our home, school and playplace. We never understood the fact that there was an outside world except for the view of the city lights from our porch. Father David told us stories about the stars in the country, and I believed him because I had to, but it all seemed very strange to think about.

                Laying in our bunks in the dark we’d gossip about our theories of good ol’ Tommy. The big dare of the nights was always to talk to him. His mystery was conjured by the very limits of our experiences, and to be honest it scared the shit out of us. We wanted to ask him about the the world within the lights. So, every night we’d appoint a new challenger. They’d talk a mean game, but something always got in the way. Eventually the dare came around to me, and I agreed apathetically.

We pretended to sleep when Tommy strolled in dragging a yellow mop bucket. Stifled giggles and farts sprinkled throughout the room as the anticipation grew. Nobody knew exactly how I felt about the dare. Whether or not I would go through with it was a mystery.
“Hey. Psst. Pissface. You gonna do it?” said a face from the dark.
“False alarm, boys. He’s pussin’ out.”
Someone farted and groaned. Another kid convulsively thrust his hips into the air. We all grew silent when Tommy passed and walked outside to the porch.
I crawled out of my bed and walked through the sleeping area. The boys grew silent, half-expecting me to turn at any moment and get back into bed.

In the moonlight his figure leaned against the railing and watched nothing. The church was built on the side of a small hill that overlooked the scattered city lights of New Haven. Separating the church and city was a small patch of forest that harbored pine trees whose shadows stretched into the blank black sky.
Tommy didn’t turn around when I came outside. Dressed in a blue unwashed jumpsuit he stood with his hands under his chin. He looked much younger than I thought. With shaggy blonde hair that went unkempt and a frame skinnier than a child’s, he looked to be sick.
“Sir?” I said.
He turned around, calm and serene. “One of you finally did it, eh?”
“Don’t be afraid. It’s okay. I’m just teasing you. You kids ain’t exactly quiet, and I ain’t exactly stupid. Come stand with me.”
It was frightening to say the least. Somewhere between the bed and porch my apathy had fallen into abatement. We leaned against the railing both watching whatever lay beyond, standing in estranged silence.
“So, what’s your name?”
“Tommy," he said.
“And what ya staring at?"
“Just the forest. It was bigger when I was your age, believe it or not.”
“I can remember being a kid in those woods. Always looking for an adventure and such. It’s funny because back then it seemed like the forest touched from one edge of the universe to the other. I can remember cutting a spot in the bush where my friends and I called home. We’d spend all day in those woods. Sometimes it hurts to think about when those woods stopped being woods and started being undeveloped land.”
“What about the city?"
"What about it?”
             "How is it over there?" 
             “It's like any other city out there," he paused for a moment, and then looked over to me, "You've never been there have you?"

             "Father David says there's alot of sinners out there."

"Why are you here?"
“Well, Kid. It’s kind of a long story. I got into some things I wasn’t supposed to. This church offered to help me out, and so I took it. That’s about it.”
“Are you here to find God?”
“Well…I don’t…I’m not sure I know how to answer that.”
“Well, I know lots a people come here sometimes to find God. That’s what Father David says, anyways, about the addicts who live here. Are you one of those people?”
“To be honest Kid, I really just don’t know.”
“You don’t know if you’re one of those people?”
“One of what people?”
“Those people who live over in that building behind the playground. The one where Father David says to stay away from.”
“I already said it, Kid. I don’t know.”
“Well, how do you not know who you are? You gotta know that. If you don’t know who you are, then what in the heck good are you?”
“That’s a mighty fine question. One I seek to answer myself someday. You see, like you, I thought I knew that answer at different points in my life. But it’s like I said, things go froma beautiful forest to undeveloped land. Churches go from school to work. And, well, things just get all turned upside down.”
“I know it seems confusing now, but someday you’re going to realize that in most points of life you just really don’t know. I don’t know.”
“Father David once told me that doubt is normal. We should accept doubt. He says doubt is a part of faith.”
“What are you doubting, Kid?”
“Well, I got a few questions about the bible and all. We read it all the time. One boy from class pointed out all these mean things about women in Corinthians. Another thing is, how did Noah get all those animals in that boat? That’s gotta be one big ol’ boat.”
“Well, I wish I had the answer to that. But, the truth is I don’t know. Truth is beyond me, kid. A lotta people say that doubt is a part of faith, and others say doubt is reason.”
“What do you say?”
“Let me tell you this, when I was a kid, those woods meant everything to me. I had a name for every stinking pine tree. Well, when my friends and I had that little place amongst the bush, it felt like I had a place all to my own. For the first time in my young life, I felt at home. Well, it only lasted a month or two because one day we came through the same path we took everyday to hear construction trucks and chainsaws roaring. We come to find that the forest was being developed for a shopping center that had nothing but a Mexican meat market and a Taco Bell in it. Never went into those woods after that. Stuck to the city."
“What’s that got to do with anything, sir?”
“One day, when this church becomes work, you’ll get what I’m saying.”
Tommy left, but not before ruffling my hair. I tried to follow him, but he left the dorm and went off into whatever else he did in the night. When I got back to the bunk room, the kids were all in a panic about whether or not I was alive. I assured them that he was nothing but a common janitor and that we could all get to bed. 
Tommy never came back after that. He moved back to the city.

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