Cooper stands in his front yard on Sunday morning. He is impatient and wants his grandmother to hurry and pick him up. He feels stupid standing on the side of the road doing nothing. Finally, she drives up, slows down, and he gets in the car. She has promised him the newest, latest video game console if he will go to church with her. She calls it that machine. Any electronics he uses his grandmother doesn’t understand she calls “that machine.”
She hasn’t told him when she’ll get it for him or how many times he has to go to church, but he wants it so badly that he just goes along with her each Sunday, waiting for her to tell him when she’ll buy it.
They park in the church driveway and go into church. This is the fourth Sunday he has come with her. He quickly realized from the first time here that this is not your usual church. They talk about how God is love and no one tries to make anyone believe anything in particular, so he is relaxed each week when he sits in the pew with his grandmother.
Fifteen minutes into the service he heads upstairs with the other teenagers. On the way up, he stops in the bathroom. He finds a girl standing at the mirror, putting mascara on. Even though there are urinals in the corner of his eye, he steps back outside to make sure there is a symbol of a man on the door, and there is.
The girl says, “Sorry. Priscilla hogs the girl’s room. Give me one minute.”
He starts to back out.
“Don’t leave,” she says, as she looks in the mirror and draws a black line across the edge of her eyelids. “I’ve seen you here before,” she continues. “Stan’s the teacher today. He’s cool. You’ve been here when we’ve had Wendy, right?”
“Yes,” he says, but he’s not talking to her, but to her reflection in the mirror. It makes him feel a little off kilter.
“She can sometimes be a drag. She gets all sad when we tell her we don’t believe in God.”
“You mean every one of you?”
“Most of us.”
She puts her cosmetics in her bag. “See you upstairs,” she says, then leaves.
When he walks into class, everyone is already seated. He takes a seat on the one space left on the couch. There are more kids than the last time he was here, and most of them are sitting or lying on the floor on large pillows of various sizes with butterflies and peace signs on them. It is a small windowless room with a big, old, soft couch and chair that don’t match and walls full of posters and art. There is a man sitting comfortably in the chair. He rises and comes over to shake Cooper’s hand.
“He’s been here before,” says the girl from the bathroom.
Stan sits back down. He has long rusty-colored hair that has a few white streaks in it that he pulls back into a ponytail. But he is not old. He has a smooth, pale face and blue eyes. He is a big, fit, guy, but he has a small pot belly that is noticeable when he sits down. He rests his arms on it as he speaks. It reminds Cooper of those Buddhas they sell on the streets of Chinatown.
“Let’s start with a prayer,” says Stan.
Most of the teens relax, close their eyes or bow their heads. One girl doesn’t move. She is wearing dark sunglasses with huge frames that hug her face and match the darkness of her skin. She doesn’t take off her sunglasses even though the room has dark walls and is not brightly lit. She doesn’t bow her head, but looks straight ahead.
“Dear Mother-Father God,” says Stan.
This is the first time Cooper has heard someone say this and his head springs up. He looks around. It doesn’t faze anyone else. When Stan is finished, they open their eyes.
Stan says, “I’m going to tell you a story.”
He talks about a woman getting on a bus with a bag of candies she just bought at the bus depot before her trip. A man walks down the aisle, sits next to her, says hello, relaxes, then opens the bag of candy. He takes one of her candies, then another. The woman gets angry. But she doesn’t say anything. Then he picks up the bag and offers her her own candies! Now she’s furious. Then he offers her candy to other people around them. She gets up and glares at him while he gives her a neighborly smile. She finds another place on the bus to sit. “Now,” Stan says, “she is stewing.” She sits herself down in her new seat and tries to calm herself down. She decides to read a book. She puts her hand inside her purse to get it out and she feels something plastic and crinkly. She pulls out the bag of candy she bought before she boarded the bus. “So, what do you think of the story?”
“She’s kind of a dummy,” says one of the teens, which makes the others giggle.
“Thanks, Louie,” says Stan, “that was helpful.”
But Cooper likes the story. It’s like a puzzle, but none of the pieces are missing, so with a little thought you can figure it out.
“She was looking at what was going on on the bus one way, but really things were another way.”
“You’re right, Cooper.”
“He didn’t take her candy,” he continued.
“No, he didn’t,” realizes one of the boys on the floor. When he makes his discovery, he rises up onto his knees. “In fact, he was being generous to her and she was being nasty back to him.”
“And it’s interesting,” says Stan, “that no matter how mean she was to him, he was still pleasant to her and everyone around him.”
Stan is about to say something else, but the girl from the bathroom puts her hand up to Stan and says, “Let me say it. What have we learned from this story?”
“Before you get mad, maybe think about what’s going on around you.”
“Maybe something is going on around you, you don’t know about.”
“Don’t be a candy hog.”
“Do you think,” Stan asks, “maybe God brings people together so they can learn things from each other?”
The girl from the bathroom challenges Stan. “I don’t believe in God.”
“He still believes in us.”
“That’s a bullshit answer,” she responds.
To Cooper, Stan, like the man in the story, seems unfazed by her anger. He smiles at her.
“What makes you so sure there is a God?” she asks.
“Because I spent a lot of time with my children when they were growing up. Children have a lot to teach us. But that’s a whole other story.”
“Now that’s an answer I don’t mind,” she replies, with more calmness in her voice. She starts to play with a long necklace she is wearing. She has already lost interest in the subject.
Stan then reaches over and takes a key from off the bookcase.
“Do we have time for a talk?”
Now the teens perk up.
The girl from the bathroom nods her head up and down.
“Kelly, would you explain what we are doing to Cooper, and you can remind everyone else of the rules?”
The girl from the bathroom turns to Cooper. So her name is Kelly, he thinks.
“The key gets passed around the room. We can take a turn to talk about anything we choose. When you hold the key, you are the only one who speaks. You can talk about anything and no one is going to answer you, judge you, or try to fix you.”
Cooper nods his head that he understands.
Stan hands the key to the girl next to him, the girl wearing the sunglasses. She passes it on. The girl next to her takes it and says, “My parents want to send me away to a camp this summer. They didn’t even ask me.” She is quiet for a second, then says, “They’re jackasses.”
She quickly shoves the key into the next person’s hand. To Cooper, it seems like she’s afraid of what will come out of her mouth if she doesn’t give it away quickly. When the key comes to Cooper, he takes it, holds it for a second, then passes it on.
When the key goes back to Stan, he holds onto it. He talks about how he’s been fixing up an old motorcycle. When his last child graduates from high school and goes off to college, he’s going to take a road trip all along the Blue Ridge Parkway and beyond. He’s going to bring a tent and a sleeping bag. There’s a place on the back of the bike for a little cooler.
“The mountains are the only place I find any peace nowadays,” he says, before he passes on the key.
Again, the girl with the sunglasses passes the key to the next person. The key ends up in the hand of one of the younger boys on the floor. Cooper stops listening. Instead, he looks at the girl with the sunglasses. He looks at her smooth brown skin and her long, straight, brown hair. He realizes it’s a wig. Something about a young teenage girl wearing a wig makes him momentarily sad but he’s not sure why. He tries not to stare and turns to the boy who is speaking.
The key starts to go around the room and when it lands in Cooper’s hands again, he holds on to it. He is silent. He stares down at the key. Then it comes out. “I have a brother. He’s four. But he’s not really my brother. He’s my uncle. It’s just easier when I’m with him to say he’s my brother to people.”
The other teens nod, as if they understand. As if they all have mini-uncles. But they are silent. They remember the rules.
“My dad has three wives,” he continues, “Well, really only one, but he’s been married three times. My mom was wife number two. They all hang out. We all get along, I guess, for now. It just seems… weird.”
While he tries to find words to better explain how he is feeling, the girl from the bathroom smiles at him. She is sending a silent message since she is not supposed to talk. Cooper realizes at that moment that behind all her makeup she is really quite pretty, and this makes the words he is trying to form get stuck down deep in his throat. He just wants to ask the others, “Isn’t life supposed to be simpler?” but he doesn’t. He passes the key along. As he does, a bell rings. Church is over, and the teens head downstairs.
Cooper stands by a bookcase, looking at the different books. Stan puts the room back in order.
“I’m glad you came, Cooper,” he says.
“Can I ask you a question?” asks Cooper.
“Doesn’t it bother you, when they say they don’t believe in God?”
“Not really. They have their whole lives to decide what they believe in. Will you come back again?”
“Will you be here?”
“Yes. I had to get my oldest daughter ready for college. I just took her last weekend. I’ll be around more now. You can borrow any book you’d like,” says Stan. “Just turn out the lights before you go.”
Stan puts some pillows back on the couch and a candle on a high shelf before he starts to leave the room. At the door, he turns back towards Cooper and says, “I think it’s more important these teens realize that this big beautiful universe is on their side.” Then he leaves and goes downstairs.
Cooper looks through the books but doesn’t find anything that piques his interest, but he has an overwhelming desire to take something with him from this room, so he finds a tattered, old yoga book and takes that downstairs with him after he turns off the lights.
He heads down to the community room where he knows his grandmother will be drinking coffee. She is talking to a woman with a tee-shirt on that exclaims she is way cooler than her kids think she is. She also has hair the color of an old orange carpet his grandmother had in her house when he was a baby.
His grandma waves him over. When he reaches her, he can see Stan sitting on a couch in the back of the room. Stan is eating a large piece of chocolate cake and has a cup of coffee on the floor by his feet. When he sees Cooper he shrugs and smiles as if conveying the message, “Why not eat cake?” Sitting next to him is the girl with the large sunglasses. She is leaning up against Stan with her head on Stan’s shoulder, smiling as if she finally has found that one place in the universe she feels completely safe. Stan continues to eat his cake.
The woman with the orange hair who is way cooler than her kids think she is steps in front of Cooper and says, “Oh, Millie, is this your grandson? Hello, I’m a friend of your grandmother’s. We took a Reiki course together. Now we practice Reiki on each other.” She talks to him until the room fills up and he can no longer see the couch.
“Well, are you ready, Coop?” his grandmother asks. They walk to the car together.
“How about we get your machine today?”
“Are you serious?”
“A promise is a promise.”
They drive to the electronics store.
“Are you sure you can afford this, Grandma?”
“I’ve been saving.”
They buy the console and extra controllers, and Cooper puts it on his lap as he drives home. He is excited when he leaves the store, but when they head towards his house he starts to feel restless and asks, “Can we go to your house for a while?”
“My television is old. I don’t think it will hook up to that machine.”
“I don’t want to play it right now. I just want to go to your house.”
They drive in the opposite direction. Cooper leaves the console in the car. They go inside. His grandma makes soup, and has Cooper cut up the carrots and celery. When the soup is done, his grandmother takes out a loaf of homemade bread and cuts each of them a piece. She ladles out the soup and they eat quietly until Cooper asks her a question.
“Grandma, do you think the universe is on our side?”
“Well, I think that if a person goes out into this world looking for a fight they’re usually going to find one. And if someone goes through life trying to be a blessing to others, trying to help people out if they can, and trying not to be too selfish, they usually aren’t the people who lack for friends.”
Cooper continues to eat his soup.
“I’m sorry, Cooper.”
“I didn’t really answer your question.”
“That’s okay, Grandma.”
“You know, that’s a question that can have a thousand answers.”
“Then I guess I have 999 more people to ask.”
While they laugh, Cooper, for the first time in his life, realizes that there isn’t much laughter between his mother and grandmother. There are no trips, no quiet gossip over a cup of tea, no nights out to the movies. His grandma just comes for dinner once in a while and slips out quietly after cleaning up the kitchen.
“How come you and my mom don’t spend much time together?”
She is quiet for a moment, as if considering how she will answer this. “I raised your mom in a religion I don’t follow anymore. I raised her with certain ideas and rules, and now I’m breaking some of those rules.”
“Why would she care? She doesn’t even take us to church anymore.”
His grandmother doesn’t answer. She looks down at the crumbs on the table left over from the bread and plays with them. Not only do they not spend time together, thinks Cooper, it seems that his mother gets easily mad at his grandmother. Only a few years ago his grandma started calling him Coo-coo instead of Cooper, a nickname he thought was funny. One day, months after she had started calling him that, his mother yelled at her to stop.
And last Thanksgiving, his grandmother had had a few glasses of wine and started singing a song while she sashayed around the living room like a hula dancer at a Hawaiian luau. Everyone in the room laughed. The song had a double meaning and when it finally dawned on Cooper what it was, he could feel a redness rise up onto his face and he laughed until his mother got angry. His mother went into her bedroom, slamming the door. His relatives were laughing so hard, he was the only one who noticed. He smiles when he remembers the song.
“I’m remembering last Thanksgiving.”
He starts to sing, “If I said you had a beautiful body, would you hold it against me?”
“Don’t quit your day job.”
“What? You don’t think I’d make a good singing hula dancer?”
“I should get you home. Where am I dropping you off?”
“At Dad’s, but isn’t there something you need me to do around here?”
“I need to weed the garden. You can help.”
Cooper begins to think, as he walks into the back yard, what confuses him most is that the very things he loves about his grandmother—the special nickname, the singing, the dancing, the parade of crazy new friends she has adopted into her life in the last few years—are the very things his mother gets angry about. It is as if his grandma is like a genie trying to get out of her bottle and his mother keeps trying to put the cork in and stop it up.
They open the gate, step into the garden and work silently side by side. He doesn’t need to be told what to do. He has done this for years. He enjoys the process of weeding. He enjoys clearing out space around the large, healthy, green plants giving the vegetables room to grow and flourish. He thinks he would like to have a garden when he is older, but not now. He knows he doesn’t have the patience for his own garden.
Cooper looks up at the sky and then over at his grandmother. He feels a restlessness he can’t understand, but the sun is setting and he needs to get home. They go inside, clean up and go out to the car. His grandmother drives him home, parking in front of his house.
“Is everything all right?” she asks, as she looks over at the house.
“It is. She’s a nice lady.”
“They’re all nice…” But she stops in mid-sentence.
“Are you going next Sunday?” he asks, before he gets out.
“I am. Want me to pick you up?”
He nods his head, gets out, goes to the back seat and gets his console and his book. “Thanks, Grandma,” he says, before he shuts the door to the car.
She drives off, leaving him standing on the side of the road in the dark. He can hear the soft chirping of the crickets. He doesn’t want to go in. He turns around to look at the house. This morning at church, he had revealed some of its secrets and he feels guilty. Instead he walks around to the back patio. He holds the console in his arms. He suddenly realizes how heavy and cumbersome it is. He can’t believe that something he wanted so badly a month ago now feels like a burden to carry around. He walks over to their patio table and sets it down there. He walks out onto the back lawn. There is a hammock at the end of the lawn where hardly any light falls, and he goes over and lies down in it. He looks up at the sky. Every few minutes he can see new stars reveal themselves. All day, since church, he has felt a wanting building up in him, a restless wanting. It feels as though, as he lies there, it has started to slip into the veins of his body and mingle into his bones. It is a wanting nothing he can buy can settle.
He can hear noises from the house. Someone has probably called his grandmother to ask where he is, and she has told them she dropped him off a while ago. He can hear talking, movement, the front door open and close. He hears his name being called. He figures he has only a few minutes to himself. He continues to look at the sky. The moon, almost full, appears from behind a cloud. Moonlight filters down, leaving a shimmery luminescence to the edge of the clouds. He is surprised that something so far away from an object can still shine its light so beautifully down on it. He thinks about Stan riding his motorcycle up into the mountains, the only place he can find a little peace. He pictures him looking at the very stars and moon that he is looking at.
He can hear his name being called again. Now he can hear a little panic in the voice. But before getting up, he looks up past the clouds, the stars, and the moon, up to that dark blue mystery of a universe and hopes he is not alone.
Bridget Grieve-Carlson is a mother of three young adults, and an autistic support worker in an elementary school in Pennsylvania. Bridget has been published in Apprise magazine, The Storyteller, and will have poetry published this fall on the website All we can hold. She has recently finished writing her first novel.