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Baptism

By William Cass

When Emma got home, Carl was sitting in his usual blue chair in front of the television scratching his head through his remaining wisps of gray hair.  He didn’t look up as she entered the cottage’s great room, but that wasn’t a surprise: closed captions flitted across the bottom of the television screen, which meant he had his hearing aid turned off.  She dropped her purse on the counter and watched the slumped back of him for a few moments.  A decade or so ago, in his early sixties, he’d begun to seem to shrink into himself somehow.  She glanced at the photo on the hutch from their wedding reception in which they stood arm in arm in her parents’ backyard in Manchester, Connecticut.  He was so erect and broad-shouldered then, fresh off an All-Conference senior season as a split end at UConn.  In the photo, they both looked handsome and robust, full of life.  Since then, nearly half a century had passed, along with twelve relocations around the country as Carl moved up the corporate ladder while they raised five children, until they’d finally landed in this seniors-only development along the Deschutes River in Bend, Oregon.  They’d moved there two years earlier after both surviving open-heart surgeries to be closer to their youngest daughter, Mary, and her family who they now felt fortunate if they saw more than twice a month.

Emma took the certificate out of her purse, moved over to her matching chair separated by a small round table next to his, sat down, and touched his knee.  He looked over at her with his customary, blank expression. 

She smiled and said, “Hello, there.”

Carl pushed his glasses up on his nose and turned back to the television.  She glanced at the screen where a basketball game was playing, then faced him again and said, “There’s something I want to show you.”

He didn’t respond, so Emma took the television remote from the table and switched off the power.  He turned and fixed her with the same expression.  The table’s lamp lit his wrinkled face softly in the gloaming.  She made a twisting motion at her ear.

 

He gave a grunt and squinted as he jockeyed with his hearing aid, muffling its sudden high-pitched squeal.  Emma put her hand back on his knee.  He looked down at it, then up at her with empty eyes.  She felt her lips purse and willed her heart back into hopefulness.

“Here,” Emma said. 

She reached over and arranged the certificate carefully on his lap.  He raised it slowly into the lamplight and studied it.  Frowning, he handed it back and said, “What’s this?”

Emma set the certificate on the table next to the remote.  “I’ve converted,” she said.  “To Catholicism.”

The crease between his eyebrows deepened.  “What?”

“Converted.  I was just baptized.”  She tried to temper the long-held anticipation from her voice.  “Mary came as my sponsor.  But I wanted to tell you afterwards myself, privately.”

Carl sat blinking.  The frown hadn’t left his face.  “How, I mean…”

“I started taking evening classes months ago.  I’ve been going when you thought I was playing bridge.”  She reached over and put her hand on his.  “I wanted to surprise you.  I wanted it to be something we’d have together.”  She paused.  “During this last chapter of ours.”

He looked from her hand to the darkened television, and her heart clenched like a fist.  She thought again about agreeing to marry in the Catholic Church those many years ago after being raised Lutheran; her extended family was close-knit, first and second- generation Swedish immigrants, for whom church had been the central focus of their lives.  She thought about the grim, tight-lipped way her parents had accepted the conditions of her marriage, as she had herself afterwards, bringing up their children Catholic while she remained home alone on Sunday mornings.  She’d gone to Mass with them on special occasions but had always felt like a guest at a club where she wasn’t a member.  For all those years, she’d missed the fellowship, the worship, the music, the meaning that church had once brought to her life.  Not unlike how she missed whatever their wedding vows had once meant.

 

She squeezed his hand.  “I wanted it be something we could share.”

 

He made several short nods, then looked back to her.  He seemed to force his lips into a thin, tight smile.  They looked at each other in the dwindling light until he finally said, “Well, good for you.”

He patted her hand, took the remote off the table, and flipped the television back on.  His eyes fixed again on the flickering screen.  Watching him, a kind of dull numbness spread through her.  Except for their heart scares and his hearing problem, they were both in reasonably good health; who knew how many more years they had together?  Quite a few, perhaps.

A long, halting breath escaped her, and Emma found herself rising from the chair.  She managed the few steps into the kitchen, leaving the certificate where it lay on the table.  Mechanically, as she had countless times at that hour, she opened the refrigerator and was aware of its white flush of light across her face.

 

“I’d be fine with that leftover lasagna for dinner,” Carl said without turning around.  “If there’s enough.”

Emma stiffened and watched him adjust his hearing aid, muting it again.  He returned to scratching his head.  A southbound train rumbled past across the river off into the high desert, but of course, he heard none of it.  She bit at her lower lip and listened alone to its distant thrum dissipate into purple hue of the gathering evening.

William Cass has had over 275 short stories accepted for publication in a variety of literary magazines such as decemberBriar Cliff Review, and Zone 3.  He has received one Best Small Fictions and three Pushcart nominations.  His short story collection, Something Like Hope & Other Stories, was recently released by Wising Up Press, and a novella, Lucky, is forthcoming from Westchester Writers.  He lives in San Diego, California.

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