In the early nineties I found an unlikely friend in my mechanic. Al was one of those guys who could have been 40 or 60, a handsome black man with a varied past. I trusted him wholly with my darling Pontiac Grand Am. Shug got me to Seattle from El Paso, packed to the roof, only stopping for fuel.
Al contributed when my dad was raising funds for his barbershop chorus and he sent a request to Pop in Texas when he was soliciting pledges for his church. Al was deep into his Baptist church. In his tiny waiting area I was usually in the company of a pointy shoed deacon whose car was too long to fit comfortably in the garage.
Al let me dig around in the junk pile next to the shop for rusty things. Despite his confusion, he would help me load giant chains or broken pulleys into my trunk. Sometimes he’d come over and show me some shiny piece of metal, still recognizable as a strainer or a bike lock. I’d shake my head and drag out an old carburetor part or brake rotor. He could not fathom how any of his junk translated to candle holders.
I didn’t see Al for a while after my brother died because I holed up. Finally, I went to visit him and, for several weeks after that, out of concern, he gently suggested I come to his church and talk to the preacher. I gently declined. He continued to invite me and I continued to shudder at the thought.
Al knew that I wanted to hear from my brother. You hear stories of dead people showing up at bedsides. I deserved a vision, or something. Hearing a kind pastor say that Ken was in Heaven would do nothing for my heart. What I really wanted was an amazing talk show psychic to contact him and relay a message, undeniably from Ken, that assured me he was peaceful and way better now. That’s all.
Eventually though, out of a desperate, Why the fuck not, I found myself at Sunday morning service in the Central District. The building was small and nondescript from the outside but, inside, there were wood floors, pews and a pulpit. Simple. Churchy, with preaching, singing and a lot of testifying. The way some young men talked about this God they’d found and the gutters of their past, made it feel like an addiction replacement program. Not such a bad thing though, maybe.
About three years later, the service ended. I swear to God it went on for a good portion of my life. And then I found myself in the preacher’s chambers, which Al had arranged. I sat on a low couch before that wide, sweaty man, his teeth flashing quick shards of light into my eyes. The golder the mouth, the closer to God, I guess.
After hearing this gentleman speak in tongues and lay hands on quivering, collapsing members of his congregation, I wasn’t precisely thrilled to be alone with him. I was dead inside though so I didn’t exactly care either. That Man of God had some smelling salts for my inner corpse, though. He told me that, not only was my brother damned to Hell for taking his own life, I was likely to be joining him because of the fornication I had experienced.
When I left his dank little room, I found Al outside, all alone, leaning on his car. I do hope my friend wasn’t waiting for a pat on the back.
Preacher man left me deeper in despair than ever. What if there was some truth to it that I didn’t know about? A living brother of mine had, unknowingly, given me a book that suggested a horrible purgatory for souls who’d committed suicide. They were to spend eternity following around their devastated, living loved ones begging forgiveness but never being heard. So much for comforting reading material.
I needed a second opinion and still had no line on the psychic of my dreams. I remembered that the theatre company I was part of had done a play featuring Carmelite nuns. These sisters take a vow of enclosure. They live in cloistered convents and rarely go out into the world. In doing research for the show, we learned that there was a Carmelite convent in north Seattle, just a few blocks from my apartment. I figured it was time to introduce myself to the neighbors.
I pulled my car over and parked across the street from the convent in the middle of this suburban neighborhood. My approach was tentative, to say the least. I had this condition at the time where no problem of mine felt deserving of serious attention. The overriding feeling I’d get when faced with a therapist or, now, these women of God was This is a place for people who really need help. Don’t waist their time! Still, I opened a door and stepped into a small vestibule. In front of me was a closed, convex, metal window with a white button doorbell next to it. I stood looking at the walls, then the button, the ceiling, the button, and then I left. The building next door was the church. Inside, it was quiet and dated – not in a good ancient way but in a sad beige way. I sat for a while, gathering the courage to return to the vestibule. I did go back and I stared at the white button some more before I finally pushed it. The bell that sounded was way off in the distance. I waited. Nothing. Should I ring it again? No. Obnoxious. Then I heard soft footsteps far far away, and what sounded like a concrete door opening, then, closing. The footsteps came closer until a woman’s voice, from the other side of the convex metal window, asked how she could help me today. Now what? I had no idea what to say. I heard my voice tell her, “My brother killed himself and I was wondering where he might be.” What a dork.
The nun continued to talk to me through the metal. I figured out that not only does the vow of enclosure keep them inside the convent walls, it also means they aren’t seen by civilian eyes, if they can help it. It was Tuesday and Sister Rose told me that I could meet with the Mother Superior Thursday at ten.
Ummm. oh. kay. That sounded good, actually. She has both “superior” and “mother” in her title. She might have a line on something.
Before I left, the Sister asked if I wouldn’t mind waiting there for a few minutes because she had something she wanted to show me. Her soft little footsteps faded back into the echoing vastness of the joint, the massive (sounding) door scraped along the floor, opening, closing, faint footsteps. Silence. Footsteps, concrete door, louder steps.
The convex metal thing between us started to move. It spun around in a way that kept the sister concealed and turned out to be a Lazy Susan of sorts. Now it was concave; I looked down to see a photograph of a young family – a mom, dad and two small kids posing in a park. The dad was Sister Rose’s nephew who’d killed himself two months before. She told me his story and I relaxed, started feeling like it was alright for me to be there. I returned the photo on the Lazy Susan and when it went around, full circle, there was an article about death that she’d made a copy of for me. I remember feeling a little less untethered. I pictured this nun back there fetching a picture from her cell and making photocopies. It was nice.
At ten on Thursday morning I entered a room that was divided by a two foot high wall. There was an empty chair facing the barrier and, on the other side, sat Mother Michael. She was small in her brown habit and sat straight but relaxed, with her legs crossed and hands resting on her lap. I nervously jabbered about the Baptist preacher and my need to know things. When the Mother Superior spoke she was even and clear, not cold, but nothing extraneous. She told me that my brother was there with me. She said he was peaceful and (she wasn’t afraid of clichés) watching over me.
I left the convent and had a pretty good day, a temporary break from crushing pain. I did not believe my brother was with me, watching over me, nor did I want to. That sounded, some parts creepy, some parts embarrassing. But, he’d also been plucked out of hell. I was back to neutral-not-knowing.
A few weeks later, I met Al for lunch at Subway and we went for a walk. I asked him what he thought of people in other cultures, other parts of the world, who believed in a different God, not the one from his bible. He said, “They’re sinners, worshipping false idols.”
That was some pompous business. At least he didn’t sound entirely confident. I was glad about that. “You don’t hear how crazy that is?” I asked.
We walked along quietly for a while, then I asked Al, “So, if I were to find peace, some day, just general, consistent peace, but it wasn’t with your God, what would you think of that?”
“That’s all I want for you, my dear.” Al did sound confident then. It didn’t matter to either of us that he was contradicting himself or was simply OK with me being a peaceful sinner. Either way, we were both off the hook – me from buying the stories that worked for him and him from trying to sell them.
The distraction of searching for a place to put my brother gave way to other stages of grief. For a long time though, when I’d meet someone who knew a great psychic, my pulse would quicken as I wondered if they could make Ken talk so I’d believe it. But, short of trying to squeeze some personal meaning into a couple tarot readings, I didn’t venture down that path. I suspected that all of these truths were just best guesses or gut feelings and I would have to wait for my own gut to make a best guess.