Our church had a drive-thru window.
It was meant for those who couldn’t make the service, who couldn’t take another night like the one they’d had before—those disgruntled and hungry few who, wishing the squat blue building was still a Hardees, drove through just to air their grievances. The window, its glass permanently stained with birdshit, was open all weekend long.
And one Sunday morning beneath that open window, we found Pastor Christine hog-tied, asleep on the floor. Our donation box, gone. The pastor was fine, physically, and insisted on delivering her sermon, in which she declared that if you’re looking for God—even in the ski-masked face of an attacker—you will see God.
Example A: she told the attacker she’d pray for him, and he’d thanked her.
Example B: she spoke of the robins that had flown in that night and started a nest in the old soda fountain behind our altar. The birds had even used our church merch—threads from our cotton tees, bits of our Now Is a Gift That’s Why They Call It the Present bumper stickers—in the weaving of their home. No one asked for evidence to back these crazy claims. When she got on a roll, reality itself seemed to hover just above the ground.
“These creatures came to us,” she preached. “We’ve made a sanctuary.”
It was a tough sell, convincing us the burglary was a feature, not a bug, of our community outreach project.
“Listen, Chris, can we close the damn drive-thru already?” someone said from a corner booth. (Most tables hadn’t been converted yet to pews, the bulk of our funds having been spent to paint the puke-blue walls white). “It’s unsafe. Plus unpopular.” The speaker, Ms. Badislav, was an agitated psych teacher of mine who seemed to hate our church yet attended every week, someone with whom, I noticed, our fearless Pastor never made eye contact. “Let’s give it up.”
The twenty-person congregation groaned in agreement, the noise echoing off the plastic order boards still mounted to the walls. But Pastor Christine was adamant about staying open. She said the night spent on the floor of the vestibule had been humbling, that she’d heard God whistling “through the window of her dreams.” In fact, she wanted the drive-thru operational every night of the God-given week—Yes, starting tomorrow—and were there any volunteers?
“Come on, people,” she said, stomping. “Communities don’t make themselves!”
So I stood up. The congregants gasped. I needed community service hours in order to graduate. Yes, there was the fact that I hated people, almost everyone, especially the locals of Deliver, a place voted #3 in Pennsylvania’s Top Small Towns to Leave. I went to church mainly to get away from my family, to feel sullen before the epic grace of God, who I did not believe in, but had always secretly wished to reach, like the unbeatable boss at the end of an RPG. A popular school-wide joke was that I should be nominated Most Likely to Shoot the Place Up.
But there was also a chance my father (long ago a faithful member) might stop by to pray forgiveness, maybe lecture me about all the data I was using to watch porn on my smartphone. He’d left a month ago in the middle of an ugly fight with Mom where, to underscore a point, he put a pair of hedge clippers through our aboveground pool, flooding the patio so bad that water dripped from the ceiling of my basement bedroom.
Our church—though recently robbed, suffering from low attendance, and inhabited by eccentrics and birds—was one of the more stable institutions in my life.
Pastor Christine shook my hand hard and then called for a round of applause.
That Monday, Pastor Christine coached me through my first shift. She’d cut her hair off and looked a bit like Alice from Resident Evil, but with braces. Her hands shook, so she sat on them.
“Most people who stop by are just curious. Offer basic info on the church—service times, dates for the barbeque. Don’t get bogged down in scripture and interpretation of rules. Don’t debate the half-baked philosophy majors. Some people will want to pray, and that’s what it’s all about. Remember: focus on gratitude, not desire.”
“And what about the people who want to rob us?”
She was silent, staring out at the dark, empty parking lot. “Just give,” she said, eventually. “Give whatever they ask for.”
With my pastor beside me I couldn’t watch porn, so I passed the hours searching her Bible for its more cinematic moments—floods, miracles, cities destroyed—but all I kept finding were the lists of names, the begetting and begotten. The only person to stop by was an old man who didn’t know how to roll his window down and yelled through the glass that he wanted a roast beef and two cokes, and one of the cokes, goddamnit, was a Dr. Pepper. I waved a brochure at him, pantomimed prayer. He gave me the finger and left.
“Just think, Pierce,” the pastor said, handing me a church key so I could let myself in the next night. “This will make the perfect college admission essay.”
I think we both knew that I would never apply to college. But what neither of us knew was how I’d stagger into adulthood like a slow crash, burn for a decade, see my own death reflected in the eye of a wild ocean, and finally return to work as a sacristan for the thriving, expanded First Community Church of Deliver (by that time housed in a converted bus depot, with seating for three hundred, and no plastic booths crusted to hell with stuck gum). In fact, I’m glad neither of us saw this coming. Life should be lived in providence, not prophecy.
At home that night, my mother was in my bedroom, poking at the growing green spot in the corner of my ceiling. The pool water was seeping in and my room smelled like Clorox and semen. “You know what this means?” she said, touching the swampy ceiling tile. Mom taught English lit in the next county over and lived by the metaphor of everything. I was tired, depressed about the Roast Beef & Dr. Pepper guy, and just wanted to masturbate myself to sleep. I looked out the window, checked the back yard for my father’s truck. “I think it means you were over-chlorinating the pool.”
“It’s the void, love. It seeks us out. It always meets us exactly where we are.” She went on as I fell asleep, the “it” she rambled about sounding a lot like Pastor Christine’s idea of God.
Most of the next night’s window shift I spent bored on my phone, surfing porn, openly inviting God not to speak to me. I’d watched so much that I needed videos revolving around improbable and physically uncomfortable scenarios, like, for example, there’s an exercise ball between them. Or a housewife, having knocked a fresh pie off the a low window sill, leans out the window to retrieve it, and the window falls closed, and for some reason she’s stuck there, pinned at the waist, and then a man comes in, like her boyfriend or the gas guy, and he teases her about the situation, offers to help if he can take her. And with little debate she agrees. And then they do it, her top half clothed and kind of rocking out the window, but inside, her skirt’s hiked up and her legs wobble from the awkwardness of the position. I liked to imagine that after it was over they’d eat the pie together in the kitchen, not bothering to pick the blades of grass or pieces of mulch out of the filling, just eating and smiling, naked, like it all made sense. But I never got to the end.
I’d been watching one of those videos when the night’s first car pulled up to the window.
“You about bored?” Ms. Badislav said, idling. She had a curly black ball of hair, sharp blue eyes, and a mole on her cheek that looked like a piece of Cookie Crisp cereal. She taught Psychology and Economics, which was for some reason a single class. Maslow’s hierarchy, id and ego, the archetypes of dreams—this was her Monday-Wednesday-Friday. But Tuesday-Thursday was supply and demand, inflation, a Wall Street simulation game called Mock Market. No matter what day of the week, when you walked into Ms. Badislav’s room, Tracy Chapman’s “Fast Car” blasted from her laptop. Besides that, she was totally unpredictable, shouty and bitter in lectures, and often late to class. Twice she’d cancelled tests to show us her taped-from-TV copy of Sunday, Bloody Sunday while she plucked nose-hairs, using her webcam as a mirror.
She honked her car’s weak horn at me.
“I’m fine,” I said, sliding my phone under a Bible on the counter, an unsmooth move I used in her class often. “It’s pretty chill here, kinda meditative. Just sitting, looking out.”
“At this beautiful parking lot,” she said. “And that rusted fence over there. Very tranquil. Nothing screams Zen like broken beer bottles and NO LOITERING signs.”
I laughed. Was this flirting? The closest I had come to flirting was giving this androgynous night elf all my rare swords in World of Warcraft. I leaned forward in my chair, my head a little out the window, and noticed her eyes were bloodshot as shit.
“What?” she said. “You see the devil in me?”
“Is Chris even here?”
“Just me,” I said. “Pastor Christine is taking a hiatus from the drive-thru, considering—”
“If I ever find the motherfucker,” Ms. Badislav said, but she looked disappointed. Her car—a junky sky-colored Camry from the early nineties—rattled harshly, the ceiling liner drooping onto her head. I heard the snap-hiss of a can opening. Ms. Badislav brought a Yuengling to her lips and turned her stereo up. Tracy Chapman’s low, smoky voice was unmistakable. You and I can both get jobs. And finally see what it means to be living. She handed the can out of her window. I believe now that this night was the closest I ever came to God. But at seventeen, sitting in the drive-thru of my church, I just thought this woman was into me.
“I can’t,” I said, thinking of Mom pumping my father’s entire beer keg down the tub the day he stabbed the pool and left, how she’d tossed the empty drum down the wooded hill of our backyard, how I’d counted the black birds that escaped into the sky. Twenty-one.
“Huh,” she said. “Chris always trades sips when she prays with me.”
I reached through the open window, and she put the can in my hand. The first sip tasted like wet wood. As I leaned out to hand it back, I took a long look around the parking lot for my father’s truck. The place was empty. He was never coming. He would never be watching. I took another sip. “What do you two pray about?” I said.
“Everything,” she said. “Opposite things. Like Chris prays for her teeth to finally turn straight. And I pray she never takes those braces off because I love the way they cut up my tongue. And Chris prays the church will survive the downturn. I pray she leaves her husband, and I pray for more beer, and she prays for forgiveness for the ones we’ve emptied. She prays for the world to disarm and join hands. I pray for an explosion we can watch from the rearview on the interstate, the windows all down, hands clasped together on the gearshift. Am I too poetic?”
I pictured her face, taut and red in the grip of lecture. I thought of her and Pastor Christine together, their secret, sacred, community of two, and I tried to act unsurprised, cool, and detached, like a man who enters a kitchen to find a woman in the window. “Poetic?” I said.
“In class, do I sound like a hippy? A bitter hippy. Is that how I come off?”
“You come off, like, psych and econ are just horrible games rich men play, like golf.”
She opened the car door, planted her hands on the drive-thru windowsill, and said “That’s the nicest thing anyone has ever said to me.” She hoisted herself up, bent at the waist, and yelled, “Man overboard!” as she tumbled face first into the church, kicking the shelf above the window. An old box of straws rained down onto our heads. I gave her space. I sat on the floor.
For the rest of my second night at the window, I watched Ms. Badislav command the drive-thru. I took notes, drinking half of my half of every Yuengling. It seemed as if her very presence in that office chair brought people to us. We stayed open well past midnight. Eight cars came in total, and at one point, there was a short line. Every person that pulled up, part of me wanted them to leave. What did we have to offer to anyone? But Ms. Badislav never blinked. She stayed motivated. In the face of so much nothing, she chose to respond, her voice at times reaching its sweet-spot—that zealous, happy, shouting. It was an hours-long communion.
“If you want to split hairs,” she said, “breathing is hope.”
“It’s too easy…It’s too boring not to have faith.”
“If there’s even a question,” she said, “then you quit that fucking job!”
Without her, there, that night, I don’t think I would’ve ever been able to look at a person and see through to their community. Community as an inherent object. An invisible, internal human organ, like a soul, but with arms reaching out. Beside her I felt seen, and grown, but not even a touch less terrified. Weeks later my father would pull up to my window, and, trembling, I’d convince him to cook the eggs for the annual pancake breakfast. I’d make him promise to use milk. I remember he brought his own wok.
At two in the morning Ms. Badislav puked on the floor, and before I ran off to try to find a mop, I though I saw something in the yellow vomit. I convinced myself it was nothing, only what my mother always saw: the big, vague void. When I came back with a stack of napkins, Ms. Badislav was gone, but the vomit was still there, and the church was so filled with the odor of yeast, you could smell something growing.
I looked again at the puke, at the image it was now undoubtedly making. A circle. A face, but blank. A clock with both hands stuck. The building’s foundation wasn’t level, because the vomit was running, moving, though time was not, and I stepped out of the way as the clock morphed into a boat, and it sailed, and the hands of the clock broke into pieces, now people on the deck, so many people, waving as they left on the waves of a great flood, and I waved back until I saw that they were climbing the mast, until they were all crowded together in the crow’s nest, until I saw that I was one of them.