Short Story Friday: The Visitor

A chill in the air did not deter Edgar Winston as he walked up the path to the white framed church on Easter Sunday morning.

The jonquils lining the walk seemed to say “We’re glad you’re here to worship with us this morning.”

Edgar ignored them, noting instead that that the building would have to be painted again this summer. His back took note of that as well, because they both knew that he would be doing the majority of the work, just as he had for the last forty-seven years at the church.

He scoffed at the idea of asking himself if it had really been that long. Of course it had.

Every joint in his body knew how long it had been.

Every deceased dream or vision of what his life might have been reminded him of that on a daily basis.

And, if those didn’t, the tuna-fish casserole that Sister Veranda brought to every potluck dinner for the last forty-seven years was an unpleasant reminder of his tenure.

Veranda Simpkins had been the piano player since the days when the piano was actually in tune. This morning she would play the same Easter hymns that she had played for forty-seven years, well before the time when her cataracts meant that she could no longer see the hymnal, and long before Edgar stopped worrying about that strange note that she always missed on the third line of “Christ the Lord is Risen Today.”

“He’s still risen,” Edgar thought, “Even if we tell and sing the story badly.”

For his part, he would share the same Easter sermon that he had for much of the last forty-seven years. He saw no reason to change the sermon or to preach some new aspect.

The gospel didn’t change, so why should he?

Inside the small sanctuary Edgar caught the scent of the Easter lilies placed on the altar by the women’s missionary group. The sun shining through the stained glass window of The Good Shepherd cast playful rainbow hues over the white blossoms.

Edgar ignored both the fragrance and the blossoms, noting instead that the carpet still needed to be replaced. Edgar and his back didn’t worry so much about the carpet because both knew that, for the last seven years, the deacons had yet to agree on a color for replacement carpet.

Thirty years ago, when the burgundy carpet had first replaced its navy predecessor, a decision that had only taken the deacons three years, Edgar had still been holding out hope for his own replacement.

When he first came to The Good Shepherd Church at the age of thirty-three he had known it was only a temporary assignment. The Bishop had assured him that he would be moved as soon as an opening came up on the Florida circuit.

Instead, it was the Bishop who was moved and Edgar’s application for reassignment appeared to be lost. After reapplying several years in a row Edgar finally accepted the fact that there would never be an opening in the Florida circuit, and accept it when his wife told him that they were never going to be moved.

As much as it had irritated him, he wished that he could still hear Sandra tell him that they would be there forever. In her own way, she reminded him every time he visited her grave in the small cemetery next to the church.

While he had not expected it to be ten years, Edgar knew that the day would soon come when he would join Sandra in the cemetery. There were no children for Edgar to worry about, or to worry about him. Even Sandra’s annoying cats were gone now.

Edgar had all of his arrangements taken care of. He and Sandra owned no house, living in the church parsonage for the last forty-seven years. What possessions he did have would be sold and the proceeds, along with a small savings and any leftover insurance money from the burial, would be given to the church for the deacons to argue about.

Veranda had stopped inviting him over for tuna casserole about three years ago, accepting the fact that Edgar had no interest in finding a replacement pastor’s wife. Still, on occasion she would bring him a basket with dinner, and an extra casserole.

At the back of the sanctuary, Edgar adjusted the thermostat and heard the oil furnace kick in. He knew that Veranda would be among the first to complain if it was cold inside the church. It had only taken the deacons ten years to agree to replace the coal furnace, and that only after Edgar and his back had refused to continue to shovel coal.

Knowing that any attempt to ask the current Bishop to replace Edgar, the deacons had reluctantly agreed to the installation of an oil furnace.

Edgar turned on the sanctuary lights and unlocked the remaining doors. Veranda would be here soon to begin warming up for her prelude. In years past the choir would have been here earlier rehearsing their Easter selections. But after Sandra passed away and Mabel Williams had her stroke, there were no sopranos left and every one of the altos was adamant about not stepping into that part.

With Sandra gone, Edgar didn’t mind no longer having a choir. Truth was that they were never that good and he’d just as soon hear the congregation sing the hymns. Then again, truth also was that the congregation didn’t sing all that well either.

They used to. When he first got there. But over the years families had moved away and older folks had passed on. The remaining forty or so congregants were there because they had grown up in this church, had been married in this church, had buried their loved ones in the church cemetery.

There were a few children, but hardly any teenagers. Those that went to church went with their friends to the more contemporary church down the street. Most just didn’t go. And, when they graduated high school and either went off to college or just moved out of their parents’ house, they just didn’t come to church anymore.

Veranda began her prelude at precisely ten minutes before the ten o’clock hour. Not one minute before or after. Edgar had often seen her sit down at the piano a minute or two early, causing those congregants who had arrived to cease their conversations. That didn’t matter to Veranda. She would sit and watch the minutes tick away on her watch before she hit the note. Precisely at 9:50 a.m.

Edgar stood by the back door and welcomed the congregation. He complimented the women on their new dresses and hats. He shook the hands of the men clad in 1970s era polyester sport coats who would soon pass out the bulletins he had printed the day before.

Edgar wasn’t sure why the bulletins were still needed. He announced the hymns from the pulpit and read the announcements before the benediction. But he knew that there would be new carpet before the deacons would approve dispensing with the bulletins.

Nearing the hour, Edgar approached the platform. As Veranda finished her prelude with a flourish that hit more than a few sour notes, Edgar stepped into the pulpit.

“He is Risen.”

“He is Risen, Indeed.”

Edgar welcomed the congregation and directed them to turn to page 45 in the hymnal. The notes Veranda missed on “Christ the Lord is risen today” were somehow comforting this morning. Edgar couldn’t put his finger on it, but somehow this morning was different.

The difference became evident when, during the second stanza of “The Old Rugged Cross” the back door opened and a young man came in. Heads turned to see the tall, thing figure, a bearded man with shoulder length hair.

Over the years the church had been visited by a few of the hikers making their way through town. It wasn’t common, but it happened often enough that, while the congregation was always curious, no one was disturbed.

At the end of the hymn, Edgar directed the congregation to take their seats. He looked toward the back where the young man had taken a seat.

“Welcome, my young friend. Glad you decided to join us today.”

The young man smiled and nodded, not saying a word.

Veranda had a new piano piece to play while the offering was being taken. Edgar observed that she had almost practiced enough to make it sound like something. He thanked her when it was done, and stood to deliver his sermon.

“On the morning of the first day of the week…” he began. He went on to tell the story of the resurrection and the events that followed. It was the same story he had shared from this pulpit every Easter for forty-seven years, and probably for many years before that as he was in school and in his first few assignments.

To Edgar, the story never got old. He never tired of telling it over and over.

But, while the story didn’t tire him, Edgar had to admit that he was getting tired. He really wasn’t in a position to consider retirement, and he didn’t know what would happen to the little church if he left. Still, he knew that he couldn’t go on like this indefinitely.

At eighty, he had more pains than just the ones in his back. And sometimes, he was forgetful. He couldn’t remember if he had taken his medicine, or if he’d fed the cats. When he finally did remember that the cats were no longer around, he’d take his medicine again, just to be safe.

The service over, Edgar stood by the back door and wished his congregation well and told them all to have a Happy Easter. He declined several invitations to join an Easter lunch. While he was tempted, he just wanted to go home.

“I knew you woudn’t change your mind, so I packed you an Easter dinner” Veranda said as she left. “And there’s a tuna casserole in there for next week.”

At last no one was left except for the young visitor.

Edgar shook his hand and said “Glad you could join us. Are you hiking through?”

“I’m doing some traveling,” the young man said “the name’s Peter, but everyone calls me Pete.”

“Well Pete, I have no idea what Veranda left for lunch, but I’m right and you don’t have any place to go, you’re welcome to join me.”

“That’s very kind of you,” Pete answered. “I like that very much.”

“Well, bring your stuff and come on,” Edgar replied. “The house is right over here.”

“Not much to carry, I travel pretty light. I’ll just grab my backpack”

Edgar grabbed the basket and motioned for Pete to follow. He would lock the church doors after lunch.

Lunch turned out to be ham, potato salad and coconut cake. Edgar put the tuna casserole in the freezer with the other three.

Over lunch, Edgar asked Pete about his travels and how he managed to make it to this town.

Pete answered a few questions, but mostly wanted to know about Edgar, about the church, and about then about Sandra.

Pete helped Edgar wash up the dishes, then they walked back over to the church so that Edgar could lock the doors.

“Thanks for sharing your lunch with me,” Pete said as he took Edgar’s hand. “You were very kind. I won’t forget that.”

“It was my pleasure, and you’re welcome here any time,” Edgar responded. “Although I suspect you won’t be back through this way while I’m still around.”

“Maybe not, but I think we’ll see each other again before you know it.”

Edgar smiled.

***

When they found Edgar lying in front of the altar the next morning there was still a smile on his face.

Dr. Stephens said that it looked like he passed peacefully. He was certain that it had just been time for Edgar to go

“After all, he was eight years old and he’d been lonely since Sandra passed.”

***

When she had very carefully washed all of the dishes in which she brought Edgar’s Easter dinner, Veranda Simpkins took the lilies from the sanctuary and planted them on the graves of Edgar and Sandra.

She knew they would like them.

Almost as much as they liked her tuna casserole.


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