A Short Story
Methuselah Oddbin sat in his pew and watched the flock of churchgoers come to roost around him, fidgeting in their Sunday plumage. He found that once again he would have to put on the Strong Armor of God, the Breast Plate of Righteousness, and the bowler hat of whatever it was, and persevere. Once again it was that time of the week that he absolutely had to take a nap, not that anyone cared. The rigors of his day-to-day life demanded this, he was up at the crack of dawn every day and, though quite willing to turn in with the sun, (some times) it was after dusk that his family always seemed to need him to socialize and whatnot. No matter how much they chose to ignore him during the course of the day, once supper commenced he felt rather a dead opossum among a family of crows:
“…How was your day, dad?…”
“…Are you feeling up to Scrabble tonight?…”
“…Would you like to ask Bobby about his day at school?…”
“…Would you like to hear about this odd lady at the supermarket?…”
“…Grandpa! You’re falling asleep again! Will it help if I poke you a bit?…”
“…The neighbors called today. Now I know you’re a man of great moral character, but I have to ask whether, in the course of the day, you may have, however inadvertently…”
It was all very well, as his son pointed out, that they all loved him and wanted to be part of his life, (they should, after all) but they wouldn’t stop trying to draw him into their trivial little worlds. Methuselah had better things to do than actualize people.
Oh, well, when it came right down to it, matters were coalesced into the simple question of what was more important in the grand scheme of things: his naps or his family. Or, in any case, it would if Methuselah were a creature of soulless logic; sometimes one must forgo what they know is right in order to be nice to their family.
Pastor Hibbly began the invocation.
He had tried once to explain this to young Hibbly but had made very little headway. Methuselah was of the opinion that the pastor did not give him nearly enough respect for a man all of twelve years his junior. He had kept trying to sidetrack the conversation so as to bring up the Bible. Methuselah knew there was such a thing as professional pride but this was a bit much. Every time someone tried to hold a conversation with their not-so-venerable preacher, be it politics, psychology, or (of all things) theology, he would invariably bring it back to this one solitary subject. It was obvious why; master Hibbly had gone to school for it, so if he made every argument he got himself into somehow about that book, he could always expect to win by way of relatively superior knowledge. Tactical sense though it made, it was still not the conduct of a gentleman. In any case it was boring, Methuselah flattered himself that you didn’t see him hounding the very same subject over and over, without end, like a nesting barn swallow at a poor, unassuming passerby.
Besides, when you came down to it, the maneuver of always using the Bible as your means of authority wasn’t the best notion, if someone trumps you with something higher you’re stuck.
This was the thing that really annoyed Methuselah: pastor Hibbly was only coming from the Bible, he, Methuselah, on the other hand, was coming from the standpoint of morality, there was no competition. They were not discussing devotional duty and whatnot; they were talking about naps and the taking of them. He seriously doubted that Hibbly believed in higher purposes at all. Someone had once told Methuselah that pastoral stuff was all about wishful thinking and self-delusion anyway.
Methuselah threw a reproving look at his son. It was not as though he was complaining about coming to church, just about the ridiculous ground rules inherent thereof. And they weren’t just normal respectable rules either, they stank of double standards. Look at that Ambrose Penbright in the pew across, sitting there with his head bowed, his hands folded peacefully on his lap, clearly unconscious. He had demanded, once, of his son why he didn’t pick on Ambrose for a change. His son had replied that first, he was not Ambrose’s son, (Methuselah had very nearly replied that he wished he was, but decided that that would only serve to make things very complicated. Emily, God rest her soul, for one, would be very confused.) and second: even if Ambrose did sleep during the service, which he doubted, he had never noticed.
“Of course you never noticed!” Methuselah had cried, exasperated. “You spend all you time vulturing me, waiting for the first sign of weakness!”
“It doesn’t take all that much attention to tell when you’ve dropped off,” his son had replied. “Everyone can hear you snore.”
“I do not snore,” Methuselah had returned with a fierce dignity that he was still to this day proud of.
“You actually may have a point there,” his son had said heavily. “I doubt Pastor Hibbly has yet worked out what that horrible noise was that interrupted his sermon last fall, and I bet that, at the time, the Weavers in the pew in front of us were convinced that the Apocalypse was upon us.”
Methuselah had wanted to say something scathing and possibly sarcastic in response to this, but he had forgotten what the Apocalypse was, though he had a sneaking suspicion he wouldn’t be allowed to sleep through that ether.
He took advantage of a pause in the liturgy to send a brief glare in the general direction of Ambrose. All those people who said that hypocrisy was rife in the Church knew what they were talking about.
Bobby poked him, “Grandpa, you’re making that grindy noise again.”
His daughter-in-law had recently taken to deploying his grandson next to him during the service, presumably for nefarious purposes of her own. He had heard her and his son talking about it in the hall. They still thought he couldn’t hear them through two closed doors and a wall. It was naive to the point of being cute, when he opened his bedroom door a crack and got his ear down there, he could make out the general gist of their conversations. Three weeks or so ago, conversation had come to include increasing references to Bobby and church and “your dad.” On the other hand, it was hard to tell exactly, sometimes they seemed to be talking about juggling geese too.
“Mom said you weren’t supposed to. Mom said it was rude,” Methuselah received another poke.
“Jabbing you’re grandfather is rude, particularly in church.”
“Mom said people expect me to be rude in church,” came the assured reply.
Methuselah leaned over to his son, “the young man is becoming impertinent, this is getting as bad as those times he insists on accompanying me on every single excursion I make beyond the house.”
“He just wants to keep you out of trouble,” came the belated reply as sonly duty won (as it should) over the hymn, We Give You But Your Own.
“I do not partake of trouble. I do not require supervision.”
“Dad, you were in the neighbor’s back yard in a lawn chair.”
“I fail to see your point.”
“At six-thirty in the morning.”
“Watching their house with a pair of binoculars.”
“There were black phoebes nesting under the eves!”
“And that’s why Bobby is keeping track of you.”
Methuselah glowered briefly and turned archly away from his son, his gaze sweeping across the aisle.
“I don’t see anyone keeping track of Ambrose Penbright! And look at him, he’s practically bent double!”
“We are praying.”
“Maybe you are…” he muttered. What did his son know about justice anyway? He didn’t know a blackbird from a grackle.
The sermon commenced.
Why was everyone so confounded fond of Ambrose? Only fifty-nine and the whole congregation thought he was some sort of peer among them. Why, while Ambrose was having his diaper changed, Methuselah was, well – celebrating his ninth birthday! He was the oldest man in the entire church and he was not going to be passed over for some upstart youngster who hadn’t even been second oldest until Horace Brook had taken up cancer and dropped out of the running! Granted, people seemed to hold him in some awe, but not all that much. When someone wanted an example of the Man of the Church, so to speak, they always gravitated toward Penbright.
He shoved his hands moodily into his pockets and met with sudden inspiration. There was a rubber band in his left trouser pocket. Methuselah squinted, hawk-like, across the sanctuary at his antagonist. It was about time someone taught Penbright the untouchable a lesson, proper church behavior be- he paused, he was pretty sure one couldn’t damn proper church behavior.
Proper church behavior be temporarily purgafied!
He eased the band free and onto his lap, he gauged the distance, and stopped. These words suddenly floating down from the lectern,
“Are not two sparrows sold for a penny? Yet not one of them falls to the ground apart form your Father. And even the hairs of your head are all counted. So do not be afraid; you are of more value than many sparrows.”
No one had ever told him that the key characteristics of the overarching personage who ran the church included bird watching. He had never viewed church as a place where proper attention was paid avians. Certainly there were doves lying about here and there, but for the most part they looked like mutated fish with mutated wings. Methuselah had always rather wanted to know what deep theological purpose this served, but no one ever seemed terribly interested in discussing it. He really could not see why any spirit, be he holy or of the more mundane persuasion, would want to be depicted as something that looked like a seventh-generation denizen of a radioactive waste puddle. Besides beached pigeons got old.
He scrabbled for a moment with his ears, trying to catch the word’s fleeting context within the half-heard sermon, but again he paused. Young Bobby was momentarily distracted, but that would not last; unless Methuselah let the rubber band fly at this very moment he would never get the chance again, but if he took the time to aim he would likely loose Hibbly’s train of thought, and this was the first time he could remember actually caring what the their preacher was being long-winded about.
He dropped the band to the floor. Penbright’s day would come, but for now Methuselah had a chance to peer into nature of this world that had him in its talons.
As the closing hymn swept them from the sanctuary, fallowing in Hibbly’s train like so many quail, Methuselah found a new perspective on life beginning to dawn. For once the world looked to be making sense. He wasn’t sure he had understood the half-heard fragments of sermon but he knew a way to shore up his knowledge.
Methuselah had never really paid much attention to the fluttering throngs in the narthex, but now he listened to the circling chatter: some was about family members, (both the distant and venerated and also the present and misbehaving) some was about football games, some was about dinners (past present, and future), but some was about the sermon passed. He listened to the different discussions as the handful of the churchgoers whose want it was, tore into Hibbly’s monologue like parakeets to millet.
Listening, he found that the multiple dissections round about him explained the inner meaning of the sermon quite concisely. They seemed a bit disgruntled about said meaning, but personally, Methuselah thought it explained a great deal about the Church in general, quite enlightening, in fact. He would never understand why everyone got grumpy on Stewardship Sunday.
`Methuselah felt someone poke him in the leg and this was the first time he didn’t need to fight down the momentary images of deranged flickers. “Bobby, you are more important than a dead sparrow,” he said cheerfully.
“I know,” came the reply with assured solemnity.
Methuselah helped his grandson off the ladder and onto the roof. He felt that he had disvalued his company; he was the boy’s grandfather, after all. Besides, Bobby would have fallowed him up anyway.
The wind had kicked itself into a lively briskness but was sill moving with a marked fifteen-degree discrepancy from the air some twenty feet above.
“Its probably the Henderson’s birch trees. I dare say no one would mind too much if I found the time to cut them down. Let’s see; your father shouldn’t mind; it would stop all those leaves and things getting in the birdbath. Your mother shouldn’t mind; it will be good, strenuous, character-building work for a strapping boy like you. I would have to stay here and shout instructions and suchlike things, so you would know where to cut, angles change you see. The Henderson’s couldn’t possibly mind, it saves them no end of trouble and expense; I hear those professional logger people are quite exorbitant.
Actually, I rather fancy we have enough daylight to make a fine start of it. Why don’t you run down and fetch a saw or, a hatchet, or one of those weed-whacker things, and I’ll show you what to do.”
“Dad said not to play with his tools.”
“Oh, certainly, it would be an insult to such venerable things as tools to play with them. You don’t see people playing catch with their gyr falcons, now do you? But we are not going to play, we are going to hunt fowl so that we can eat dinner.”
“By which I mean that you and I are going to cut down the Henderson’s birches so that we can see all the way into nice Mrs. Pamly’s yard. Do you know, she said she had a cormorant in her little pond just last fall?”
“Grandpa, its cold!”
“Your mind is wandering, my dear boy. Here, sit down and lean against these fine bricks, they are still warm from today’s noontide sun. I suppose we can start tomorrow, this is your first time being here, after all. You should enjoy yourself. Look, the crows are holding their last congress of the day in the trees around us, the gulls are heading back to their watery haunts for the night, oh, look, there is a hooded oriole on our bath! There are a couple of finches in the yard to our left, and, goodness, what is that on the Matten’s feeder? Oh, it’s a squirrel. I don’t suppose you have a firearm of some sort about you? Perhaps acquired on some birthday or other? No? Well we will have to see about that next Christmas then, just as well, anyway, it’s gone. Oh, and there is Mrs. Matten herself (you can’t see her as you’re sitting down, angles, you know) perhaps I should drop her a line about the squirrel situation, or even give her a shout now. Oh, its too late, she’s gone back inside.”
Methuselah eyed his grandson sitting fluffed against the chill with his back to the chimney, “Tell me Bobby, how much do you give in Sunday school?”
“Ha, so if a sparrow is worth half a penny, and presumably, only when it is alive,” He thought a moment, “in terms of the Church you are, in fact, at least fourteen times more important than a sparrow!”
“I believe I have had a sort of spiritual appendectomy.”
His son eyed Methuselah across the Scrabble board, “I think you mean epiphany.”
“Whatever they are called, how much does Ambrose Penbright give in church?”
“What? That’s your epiphany?”
“According to you at any rate. I worked it out after church today, monetary donation is directly proportional to one’s worth in the Kingdom of Heaven. Also, you appear to have spelled ‘gumboil’ incorrectly.”
His son blinked owlishly, “That is not how it works, weren’t you paying attention to the sermon?”
“Of course, it was the main source of my information.”
His son looked uncomfortable, “Kia’ is a proper noun.”
“It is a parrot in New Zealand. And do not change the subject, Ambrose is thought better than me because he is worth more money.”
“Look, there is more to being a Christian than tithing. People respect Ambrose Penbright more than you because he does not show up to church late and spend the entire service grumbling one thing or another. It doesn’t have anything to do with money. Look,” his son appeared to be concentrating rather hard, like a scrub jay trying to remember the location of its nut stash. “Even you will admit that baby pigeons are one of the most ugly animals on the face of the earth, but they become rather nice-looking birds, not because of anything they do but because of some old lady throwing bread crumbs to their parents so they don’t die young and hideous. And, er, God is like someone like you, who keeps pigeons just because they are pigeons,” his son finished a bit self-consciously.
Methuselah was rather shocked, the world appeared to molt before his eyes. “Oh, I suppose that makes sense. You are right; it was petty to only think about money. I think I am going to bed, do you happen to have a copy of the Bible about you?”
The next Sunday Methuselah didn’t try to sleep during the sermon and he actually smiled at Ambrose once or twice, this new perspective on life was oddly liberating.
“That was a marvelous sermon, dear Hibbly,” he said ringing his hand, “I particularly enjoyed your metaphor of the car transmission, it was so apt and, I confess, until that moment I had never looked at the matter quite in that way before. Oh, and while we are on the subject of automobiles, if someone could be found to drive me there, I would be more than happy to preside over that charitable food drive you mentioned.”
Their pastor looked rather like a kingfisher that had forgotten to swallow his herring headfirst. Methuselah stood aside, out of the trickle of departing congregators, to watch.
“Let’s see Penbright top that,” he muttered.
His son was right, they were all pigeons in an enormous aviary, and the ones that did tricks were the most important.