Chapter 5: Sundays in Chauncey
The sound of a vehicle pulling up the driveway startled Nate from his sleep. The TV was still on, showing the morning sports report. Outside, the Sunday morning sunlight lit the yard with a soft golden hue. Nate looked out the front window just as the big, black truck pulled to a stop, perfectly situated to reflect the sunlight directly into his eyes. It nearly blinded him.
He turned the TV off and gently nudged Molly awake before walking to the front door. Emma was just mounting the steps as he opened the door.
“Time to go,” she told him cheerfully.
“Time to go…? Where?” he asked, drawing a blank on what he had missed.
“Wha?” the simple answer somehow failed to help him figure out what was going on.
“Don’t you go to church?” she asked.
“I used to, back when I was a kid. Haven’t been in a long time,” he finally figured out where he was and what was going on.
“Well,” she shrugged, “No time like the present to start again.”
“Do I have time to take a shower?”
“If you hurry.”
Nate resigned himself to the idea of being confused whenever he was around Emma. It seemed like that was the way of thing and nothing was going to change that.
He headed upstairs and into his new bedroom. He shifted through his clothing as quickly as he could, assembling something that matched and appeared as wrinkle-free as possible. As he turned on the shower, Nate decided he should wash all his clothes so he could stop looking like he lived out of a suitcase.
He showered quickly, aware of the unexpected time constraint placed on his morning. He hadn’t cared about or attended church in years and didn’t care, but Emma did and that seemed like it mattered. As he began to towel off he checked his face in the mirror and contemplated the neck beard that he’d been growing for the past few days before deciding he didn’t have time to shave, even if he needed it. “Never did like making good first impressions, anyway,” he told his reflection.
“Hurry up, we’re going to be late!” Emma called from the bottom of the stairs.
“Hey,” he yelled back, “I’m not the one forcing you to take me. You can go any time you want.”
“Shut up and get dressed.”
“Alright, mom,” he shook his head. “I’ll be right down.”
Pulling his clothes on, Nate decided it would be in everyone’s best interest if he brushed his teeth. After a quick run over with the brush, Nate left the bathroom and sat on the top step to put his shoes on. Emma sat on the bottom stair, talking nonsensically to a seemingly excited Molly while scratching her ears and chin.
“Looks like she likes you,” he commented.
Emma turned around. “Who are you talking to, me or the dog?” she asked, smiling up the stairs at him.
“Whoever will listen, I guess.”
“Ready to go?” She let go of the dog and stood up.
“Just as soon as I grab my car keys.”
“Don’t need ’em,” she said, reaching into her pocket. “I’m driving.”
He shrugged and walked down the stairs as she turned toward the door. As he reached the bottom step he rubbed the dog’s head. “I’ll be back in a while, girl,” he told Molly. “Don’t do anything while I’m gone.”
“And what would a sweet dog like that do while you’re away at church?” Emma asked as he joined her on the front porch.
“I don’t know. Eat my food, burn the house down.”
Emma shot him a quizzical look. “Burn the house down?”
“Stranger things have happened,” he smiled. “I never know what she’s going to do next.”
“Alright,” she rolled her eyes, “I’ll have to take your word for it.”
They walked out to the truck and Nate hopped into the passenger seat, narrowly avoiding a large salad bowl. “What’s this for?” he asked.
“After church potluck,” she told him as she put on her seat belt.
“Whoa,” he put his hands up. “I never signed up for a potluck.”
She started the truck. “If you’re going to stick around you should get to know people.” Turning to face him, she gave an exaggerated wink. “Besides, you don’t have a choice.” She put the truck in gear. “Buckle up.”
“An after church potluck, eh?” he said. “Yet another one of those small town traditions I always assumed I would never experience.”
“You sure don’t have much curiosity for a city boy,” she said.
“City boy? Aren’t you from a city originally?”
“Yeah,” she sighed. “I just thought it would be fun to call someone a city boy.”
“Sorry,” he told her. “You just don’t seem to be the provincial small town type to me.”
“So what do I look like to you,” she asked, running her hand through her hair and turning to face him.
“Well, for one thing,” he said, “you look an awful lot like someone who needs to keep her eyes on the road.”
She snapped her head forward, her eyes expanding to become saucers. The truck had veered off the dirt track and was headed directly for the remains of an old fence bordering the road. She jerked the wheel and reentered the road in a cloud of dust.
“I, uh, don’t usually do that,” she said, smiling sheepishly.
“What?” he asked, “Drive off the road or miss the fence?”
“Hey!” she feigned anger. “Do you see any dents in this truck?”
“Maybe you know a good auto body guy,” he laughed.
She reached across the cab and back-handed him on the shoulder, “Shut up.”
Nate decided to change the subject. He gestured at the bowl in the middle of the seat, “So, does this church of yours do potlucks very often?”
“We have them every week.” She turned the truck off Leonard Road onto Shackner Road, heading into town.
“Lots of people there?”
“Yeah,” she said, “There are about a hundred people in the church, most of them go to the potluck,” she shrugged. “Turns out there isn’t all that much to do here in Nowhere, Kansas on a Sunday afternoon.”
“So should I dare ask about the night life?”
Emma furrowed her brow, “Well, we, uh, have…” she shrugged, “We have crickets.”
“Crickets, eh?” Nate asked. “That’s pretty exciting.”
Emma shrugged, but did not comment. She turned the truck onto Main Street and followed it through town. A few blocks past the edge of the optimistically named business district, she pulled the big truck into an unpaved lot next to a red brick building. The sign out front proclaimed the building to be the home of the Chauncey Bible Church.
“So this is the church?”
“This is it.”
Emma looked over at Nate. “You seem nonplussed.”
“Maybe,” he responded, “I guess I was kind of expecting a little white-washed wood building.”
“Sorry,” she told him, shaking her head. “That one burned down last week, if you’d come earlier we could have been more of a stereotypical small town for you.”
He put his hands up. “Sorry. Guess I got carried away.”
“Well, tell you what, then,” Emma said, patting him on the arm. “Tomorrow we can go to Chicago. And while we’re there we can get mugged and then we can get caught in the middle of a gang war.”
“Alright, alright, I get the point.” Nate opened the door and slid out of the truck, taking the salad with him.
The sound of music wafted out of the open windows of the church. “We’re late,” Emma said, “They’ve started already. Let’s go in through the back.”
The pair walked past a row of well-used trucks and sport utility vehicles. As they rounded the building, Nate laid eyes on a brand-new Lincoln sedan parked by the back door. He pointed to the big luxury sedan. “Sorry if it sounds like I’m stereotyping, but that car doesn’t look like it fits in around here.”
“Yeah,” she told him, “It’s a bit out of place. It’s Richard Rockafeller’s car. He owns the Chauncey National Bank.”
“Rockafeller?” he asked, raising an eyebrow.
“He’ll have you believe he’s one of the Rockefellers, but nobody listens. Besides, he spells his name differently,” she gestured off to the east. “Doesn’t help that he doesn’t fit in around here. He’s from New York, and doesn’t let anyone forget it.”
“Well at least I won’t be the only city boy around here,” Nate said, following her up the steps to the back door of the church. “That’s good.”
“We can discuss that later,” she told him over her shoulder as she opened the door. They walked into the building and Nate found himself in a small kitchen, already filled with an odd assortment of dishes, each of which seemed to hold a different menu item for the after service festivities. Emma passed the room’s refrigerator, opened it and placed the bowl on the top shelf. “That should be good enough,” she said, closing the door. Turning, she led him out of the kitchen and into a short hallway.
The sound coming from the door at the end of the hallway was not the organ music he recalled from his traditional conservative upbringing, accompanied by the sound of solemn voices raised in hymn. Instead, the sounds of guitars, drums and upbeat singing met his ears. Emma pushed the door open and the pair entered the sanctuary.
Nate found himself in the back of a small space. A few pews sat to his right and a blank wall was on his left. He quickly grasped the layout of the room. He was in a small alcove which held five rows of empty pews. Directly across the sanctuary was an identical alcove where a single parishioner sat, looking at him with a confused expression. There was a stage between them occupied by a half dozen musicians singing a praise song projected onto a screen set up behind them by an overhead. The rest of the sanctuary opened off to his left. Nate took a quick inventory of the room guessed that Emma’s estimate of a hundred parishioners was accurate, although the room could easily hold three times that number.
As they took a seat in the front row of the alcove, Nate noticed several heads turning to regard the pair. Quizzical glances in his direction, followed by elbows poked into neighbors, then still more furtive glances followed by muttered conversation informed Nate he would have a hard time passing himself off as a local.
“Looks like they’ve noticed something is amiss,” Emma whispered.
“I’d say so,” he responded.
For several minutes he stood and absorbed the activity around him as Emma joined in the singing of the unfamiliar songs of praise to a god he hadn’t thought anything about since college. The first eighteen years of Nate’s life had included weekly church attendance. It had not been so much forced or expected as it had been routine. Every Sunday he had gotten up and gone to church. For the most part he also remembered not hating most of it, and enjoying some of the times, especially his high school youth group.
Then he had gone off to college. Religion had never really been more than a weekly activity to him, so when confronted with a new town and stripped of the rules that had guided life in the Lassiter household Nate had simply stopped going to church. At his mother’s urging, he had spent the first few weeks attempting to find a church to attend while at college, but the draw of sleep on lazy Sunday mornings, especially those following big Saturday parties, eventually won out. But now here he was. Nate quietly chuckled to himself at the sheer absurdity of being in a small town church that bright May morning. Here he was, leaving everything behind, his job, his home, his engagement, and where did he end up? In a church, surrounded by people singing to the god he had left behind far earlier.
His time of reflection came to a halt as the singing ended. The musicians left the stage and the pastor took their place. He called all of the children in the church to the front of the sanctuary. As the little flock ran down the aisle he sat down on the steps. He appeared to be about fifty, and each of those years had left their mark. His face was lined and deeply tanned. Nate guessed it was from a life spent outdoors and working rather than a tendency to sunbathe. His salt and pepper hair, was thick and nearly perfectly placed. He was distinguished, Nate decided. It was a good look for a pastor.
As the pastor sat on the steps of the stage and told the eager children the story of the Prodigal Son, he took a grandfatherly air, gentle and kind. The little, upturned faces stared at him, wide eyed, as if this was the only entertainment they would receive for the week. His story was short, and when he finished he sent the excited group off to their Sunday School classes.
When the children had left the sanctuary, the pastor stood up. As he called the congregation to prayer, his voice seemed to change, booming out across the sanctuary, calling his flock to god, increasing in power, but never losing that gentle, grandfatherly quality. Nate bowed his head and folded his hands, remembering the position of prayer from long ago.
The sermon that morning was the on the story he had already told the little children, the tale of the Prodigal Son. Emma placed her Bible between them so he could follow along, but Nate barely looked at the text. He found himself studying the room, measuring the people of the small town that had suddenly, unexpectedly become his home. The congregation seemed to be a mixed lot. Several old ladies in flower print dresses sat in the front, some accompanied by men with white hair and well-pressed suits. Toward the middle of the room a group of people roughly his age studied their Bibles, seemingly intent on the sermon. At the very back of the room a half dozen teenagers were anything but focused, instead whispering to each other and passing notes. Most of the congregation seemed to be middle-aged, some dressed formally, others appearing as they must the rest of the week while at work. Some even looked like they were simply there on a break from fixing the car.
Compared to the stiff formality and Sunday best Nate had experienced growing up, the congregation of the small church seemed a motley crew. It seemed strangely comforting. As the pastor spoke of the Prodigal Son’s father accepting him back without question or judgment, simply loving him as he was, Nate began to wonder if possibly his parents’ insistence on Sunday best was off the mark. He remembered sitting in church, feeling uncomfortable and hearing about punishment and damnation and began to think that maybe if he had grown up in this church he would not have been in such a hurry to leave.
The benediction startled him out of his reverie, and Nate stood up and followed Emma back into the kitchen. Along the way she stopped and introduced him to several people whose names he promptly forgot. She retrieved the salad from the refrigerator and they headed for the church’s back lot.
Nate stepped out the door just in time to see the door of the big Lincoln he had noticed earlier slam shut. The engine started and the car powered away in a cloud of dust and gravel.
“That Rockafeller guy didn’t seem to waste any time getting out of here,” he commented to Emma.
She rolled her eyes, “He never does. Thinks he’s too good to spend time with us bumpkins.”
“He has to do it all week at the bank,” a new voice chipped in from behind, “Why would he want to on Sunday?”
Nate turned and locked eyes with a tall, well-dressed man who appeared to be a few years older. “That’s a cynical view to take of a man you go to church with,” Nate told him.
Emma did not stop to join the conversation. Instead, she went to set her food offering on the table.
“Not just that, he’s my boss,” the man told him, offering his hand. “Bill Pearson, I’m the assistant manager at the bank.”
“Nate Lassiter,” he took the offered hand. “I was a banker, back in Chicago.”
“How long ago was that?”
Nate mentally calculated the days since his abrupt departure. “About a week ago,” he finally said.
“A week?” came the startled response. “And how did you end up here?”
“It’s…kind of a long story.”
A woman came up and placed her hand on Bill’s arm before he had a chance to respond. He introduced her as his wife. She apologized for the interruption, then informed Bill that he was needed to help set up.
“Well, it was nice to meet you,” he told Nate. “You’ll have to tell me how you got here some other time.”
“Alright, I will.”
Emma returned from adding her salad to the dishes already piling up on the serving table. “C’mon,” she said, “I’ll introduce you to everyone.”
The pair travelled through the crowd, exchanging greetings and pleasantries with the various parishioners. Most seemed friendly and politely curious to Nate, but he detected an undercurrent to the conversations, almost as if he were an unwelcome intruder. Deciding to ask Emma if she had noticed, he tried to steer her into an unoccupied section of the churchyard. His question went unasked, however, when the pastor stood to say grace before the meal.
Nate suddenly remembered that his abrupt wakeup call had caused him to miss breakfast. He forgot all about the question.
* * *
After he had eaten, Nate made it a point to seek out and speak to the pastor. He was talking to one of the high school age girls when Nate found him. As he approached the conversation apparently finished and the girl walked away, leaving Nate to face the older man alone.
The pastor turned and gave him a once-over. As he did, Nate realized that the older man was far more imposing up close than he had expected. He was several inches taller and seemed to significantly outmass him. If it weren’t for the friendly grin and outstretched hand Nate would have seriously considered running away. It was absurd, but he’d felt like an interloper the entire morning and he couldn’t really figure out why he was at the church, anyway.
Nate accepted the handshake, but instantly regretted it as the larger man nearly crushed his hand, “Pastor Jon McPherson,” he introduced himself in his pleasant, deep voice, “I don’t think I’ve ever seen you before.”
“I just got into town Thursday,” Nate pulled his hand out of the iron grip and flexed it a few times, attempting to return circulation.
“Where are you from?”
“I’ll bet Chauncey is a bit of a change of pace for you, then,” he raised an eyebrow. “What brings you here, son?”
Nate shrugged. “It’s kind of a long story.”
The pastor gestured to a pair of folding chairs. “Have a seat, then.”
“Alright, Pastor McPherson.”
“Call me Jon.”
Nate settled into the chair and let out a few halting, forced sentences about needing “a change of pace” and “a fresh start,” but he did not believe a word of what he was saying, not after his conversations with Emma over the last two days.
If Pastor McPherson saw through his smoke screen as easily as she had he did not force the issue. As Nate finished, the older man rubbed his right eye with two fingers then brought his hands together. “Let me ask you one question, son,” he said after a short pause. “Did you have a good life back in Chicago?”
“I had a good job and good friends, so I suppose I did, yes.”
“So then why did you really leave?”
“Well, I…” he trailed off, hesitant to tell the pastor his real reason for being there. “I really don’t know. And I don’t think that I should be taking up your time right now.”
“Think nothing of it. That’s what I’m here for.”
Nate decided to try the truth. “Actually,” he said, “I’m just not comfortable talking about this right now.”
“Tell you what,” the pastor said, standing up, “I’m available anytime. If you feel like talking about it, just stop by.”
Nate rose to his feet, “Alright,” he said, offering his hand, “I might just do that.”
“Don’t be a stranger,” Pastor McPherson said, cutting off the circulation in Nate’s hand once more. “It’s not going to help you any.” And with that he turned toward the crowd
Nate sunk back into the chair, a new question forming in his head. Two days before he had told the story to Emma without so much as a second thought. Today, however, he had not even scratched the surface, not even approached the issue. Instead he had thrown out evasive answers that made practically no sense. An explanation began to form in the back of his mind. Maybe he had told Emma because–
Emma interrupted his thought. “So are you going to sit here all day, or do you want to leave?
Startled, Nate looked up to see Emma standing in front of him. “Well,” he said slowly, “This is a pretty nice folding chair.”
“C’mon,” she said, offering her hand, “Bus is leaving.”
He grabbed her hand and stood up. She led him back across the lot to the big truck. As she pulled on to the road he was struck by a sudden realization. “Your aunt wasn’t there today,” he said, turning to her.
“No,” she sighed, “Aunt Ruth has a few…issues with the church. Has for many, many years. I try to get her to go, but…” she trailed off.
“Huh,” was all he could manage.
“So, how did you like the service?” she asked, quickly changing the subject.
Nate waited a long moment to respond. “It was fine,” he allowed. “A lot different from the church I grew up in, though.”
He shrugged. “None of the men would have dared show up without a tie, for one thing. Your church seems looser. I kind of liked that.”
“However…” he started to voice a thought, but trailed off, unsure.
“I don’t know…it just kind of seemed like they didn’t like me very much.”
“It wasn’t you,” she said quietly. “A lot of people around here don’t think too highly of me.”
Silence reigned over the truck for what seemed like an eternity as Nate attempted to figure out why the townspeople did not like her. Not to mention why she would stay in such a place.
“Why don’t they like you?” he finally asked as she pulled the truck up in front of his rented house.
“They don’t like the fact that I left and came back,” she said, putting the truck into park. “That’s not the way things work here. And the fact that I came back married just made it that much worse. And don’t even get started on the validity of following that with a divorce.”
“That’s stupid,” Nate responded, unable to find a more eloquent response. “Why do you even bother to stay here if the people think like that? You could probably have success anywhere you want to try.”
“Because,” she sighed, “This is my home. It’s where I belong.”
“I don’t buy that,” he shook his head. “You already left once, you can leave again.”
“Maybe,” she allowed, smiling, “But maybe I was supposed to stay here so I could meet a lonely guy running away from his home.”
He gave her wrist a squeeze. “I don’t think that the world works quite that way.”
“Why not?” she asked. “Maybe it’s fate.”
He stared into her dark brown eyes, willing the right words to come. For just a moment the infinite, universal possibilities of their chance meeting in a small cafe opened themselves to him. After a moment he realized that he couldn’t believe there was anything other than chance.
“I don’t believe in fate,” he said, pulling his eyes away from hers. “We just happened to be in the same place at the same time. All we can do now is try to avoid screwing it all up.”
“Spoken like a true cynic,” she shook her head. “I’ll bet you don’t believe in magic, either.”
“Magic? What’s that got to do with it?”
“Everything,” she smiled wistfully, “Magic creates those moments that make life worth living. The sort of things that can’t be explained away and you know you’ll be able to treasure for the rest of your life. Like the feeling you get with your first kiss. Or when you meet someone and know you will be spending the rest of your life with that person. There’s plenty of magic out in the world, you just have to know where to look.”
“Well,” he raised an eyebrow, “I don’t know about you, but I don’t think either one of us can talk about the person we’re going to spend the rest of our life with.”
“And on my first kiss, I missed.”
She smiled. “What do you mean, ‘missed?'”
“I went in with my eyes closed and ended up with a mouthful of nose,” he chuckled, remembering the moment through the lens of time. It had not been funny at the time, but looking back it did seem absurd. “It felt a lot more embarrassing than magical. Trust me.”
“I don’t doubt it.”
He opened the door. “Want to come in?” he asked.
“I’ve got a lot of work to do,” she said.
He slid out of the truck and headed over to the house. Emma sped out of the driveway with a honk and a wave as he opened the door.
Alone again, Nate decided to follow through on his plans to stop looking like he lived out of a suitcase. He carried all his clothing down to the basement and began running loads of wash through the rickety old washer/dryer combo.
Following that, he decided to take a nap. As soon as he closed his eyes, his cell phone rang. Vince’s number was on the caller ID. He picked the phone up and hit answer.
“Nate, it’s Vince.”
“I know. What’s up?”
“Just calling to see where you are. Haven’t talked to you in a couple days, and I was beginning to get worried.”
“I’m in Chauncey, Kansas.”
“It’s a tiny little town in the middle of the state.”
“I’ve never heard of it.”
“I wouldn’t doubt it.”
“What are you doing there?”
“It’s kind of hard to explain, actually. I don’t think I really understand why I’m here either.”
“How long are you going to stay?”
“A while. I rented a place on the edge of town.”
The line fell silent for long moments. Vince finally spoke again right before Nate decided to check if the connection had gone bad. “I talked to Julia yesterday.”
“How is she?”
“Not happy, I can tell you that. She wanted to know where you are, and didn’t believe me when I told her I didn’t know.”
“Did you tell her I was in Kansas?”
“I told her you were in Kansas on Wednesday, but I hadn’t heard from you since.”
“That’s true enough, I suppose.”
“Hey, Vince, do me a favor.”
“Don’t tell Julia anything else. I need to figure out what I’m going to do, then I’ll deal with it myself.”
“I’ll do my best.”
“You don’t have to be in the middle of this,” he said, “But thanks.”
“Don’t mention it.”