Before I met you, Luke, I’d known nothing but flight — staying just long enough until the bills began to pile up. Not that that changed. When I arrived in Memphis, I didn’t even have a stroller for James, just carried his car seat until my arms burned and I had to set him down again. It was a rainy evening as you drove by. You stopped, rolled down the window and asked if we needed a ride. I said no and you asked why. I said I didn’t have any particular place to go. I was trying to get out west, maybe see if I could look up my half-brother George out in Oakland.
You put the pieces together. We were homeless, my son and I. You offered to let us stay at your home for the night. You talked animatedly about your son, David, twirling your white-gold wedding band as you spoke. He was about to turn one; my James reminded you of him. “My wife’s making spaghetti,” you said, and I was struck by a sudden flash in your dark-green eyes. There seemed to be an invitation of some other kind hidden behind the words. I turned you down — I’m still not sure why — but you insisted on getting us somewhere to spend the night. “Gonna be a cold one,” you said, and drove us to a nearby motel. The rain turned to sleet as you drove. I asked what you did for a living: a deacon at Our Lady of Sorrows, you said. Just down the road, actually. It’s Catholic, but they let the deacons marry.
“I’m not very religious,” I said.
“Neither am I.” You laughed. I wasn’t sure what you meant. I think I know now.
You carried the car seat up the metal stairs to the second floor in the sleet. You’re not a looker — neither am I, let’s be honest — but there was something sweet about the way you carried it upstairs, resting the car seat against your slight muffin top. As you left, you gave me two fifty-dollar bills, still crisp from the ATM downstairs, and invited me to mass that week. I declined, saying we’d probably already be gone by then, but you said I should still come, and then hugged me a little too long, and in your hug it was like I found something I’d been missing for years. You parted awkwardly. It was very endearing. It made me decide to stick around and go to mass after all.
I hadn’t been in a long time. I didn’t grow up Catholic but when I was younger I’d gone to the local parish a handful of times with school friends. There was a comforting rhythm to the service — sit-stand-kneel, sit-kneel-stand — and the homily (delivered by an older man who I assumed must be the priest) was interesting but nothing I hadn’t heard before.
Afterwards, you spotted me from across the room and rescued me from the sea of well-intentioned but nosy parishioners. We went downstairs and sat under fluorescent lights in your office as you brewed green tea. James babbled away in the corner.
“Listen,” you said. “I don’t mean to pry… but I was just wondering… are — do you need help?”
I laughed, louder than I’d intended. It sounded so funny coming from you. “Why do you ask?”
You grew very flustered, as though I’d caught you looking down my top. (You did do that — don’t deny it — but I don’t mind.) “I — well, I was just curious. I’d want to help you if you needed it. For your sake — and for his.”
The priest knocked on the wooden frame of the door, smiled at me from behind his gray goatee as he said you were needed upstairs. “Be right back,” you said, leaving me and James alone. An ornate clock ticked away above your seminary diploma. Below that, on your expansive, lacquered desk, was a leather wallet engraved with your initials.
“You left your wallet out,” I said softly, as though that could break the curse, could save James and me from the life that stretched out before us: motels, fake IDs, cut up credit cards flushed down the toilet. My heart beat in my chest so fast I was a little worried I might faint. The fluorescent light seemed to pulse. I grabbed the cards from your wallet, as many as I could find, heard your footsteps come back down the hallway. You closed the door behind you.
“Listen,” I said, pulse thudding in my ears. “Thanks for everything, but James and I—”
You leaned in and kissed me, placed a hand behind my neck. Then, just as suddenly, you stepped back, a look of shock on your face, like you couldn’t believe what you’d just done. “I…” you said. “I’m sorry. My wife is — I thought I could help you without… ever since David was born—” You set your face with a steel resolve. “I think you need to leave. I’m sorry.” You stared at the carpet as I left. I took James straight to the bus station, used the cash you gave me to buy two tickets to Oakland. George was out there somewhere. Maybe I could find him in the phone book, maybe he had a room we could stay in, or even a couch we could sleep on for a night or two.
I wanted to explain everything, Luke, but I can’t. I cut up your credit cards and flushed them down the bus toilet. I couldn’t use them. I’d accidentally grabbed one of your business cards, too. Below your name it said, in italics: Our Lady of Sorrows.
I’ve gotta go now. I’ve decided to just leave this letter on the bus. I thought maybe I’d mail it to you at the church, but I can’t do that. I hope whoever finds this doesn’t think I’m a monster. None of us know what the hell we’re doing anyway.
Austin Ross’s fiction has previously appeared at Necessary Fiction, Emerge Literary Journal, and elsewhere, and has been nominated for the Pushcart Prize. He currently lives and writes near Philadelphia with his wife and son.