Pete felt a chill in his neck, like an ice pack shocking his senses before it numbed the pain. He let out his breath. Gathered his thoughts, said, “I’m starting to see that, mom. I don’t know what to do about it.”
Alma wanted to tell her son. Tell him about fifty years’ worth of hard earned lessons. Give him the paycheck without his having to work through the pain. Guide him the way Nona had guided her. But Nona had not given her the answers to life’s tests. Instead, she had helped Alma to figure out her own exam.
Pete glanced up at the ceiling, back down at the patch of carpet his eyes owned, up decisively at his mother, shook his head, said, “It’s the finality of death. It doesn’t fit with anything else. It doesn’t fit with your religion, it doesn’t fit with Becky’s religion, it doesn’t fit with any religion. It’s just reality.” But it fits with Tom’s religion, he thought.
Pete didn’t know it, but his mother thought the same thing. She thought about the way Pete’s just-the-facts-ma’am tendencies had firmed up in the three years he’s partnered with Tom. She thought, we all test out atheism, doesn’t mean he’ll stay in that hopeless dogma. Alma had the urge to ask Pete whether he ever experienced God these days, remembered the last time she’d talked God and gotten her fingers burned, asked, “The finality, Honey? That’s what’s got you brooding? You said there were many things on your mind. Is that the big one?”
Pete blurted out, “I might have just killed a man. I don’t want to lose Becky. There are just so many possibilities.”
That was a shocker. Alma thought for sure those two were on a marriage track.
But she had misread him. She sat up straight, said the wrong words.
“Pete, life isn’t multiple-choice. It’s a math test you’re not prepared for, with lots of tricky problems. You don’t know what’s coming and when it gets to you, you don’t have the formulas. Even the Bible can’t give you those. Have you ever been back to church?”
Why did I have to go and say that? Neither Becky nor Pete had ever said anything about marriage, let alone in a church. Pete had stopped going to church at fourteen, shortly after his father died.
That had been rough times. Money was tight. Pete had to look after his younger brother Anthony every day after school. Alma had wanted so much for Pete to go to church. It might not give him the formulas, but he’d know how to add and subtract and multiply and do long division in his head. He’d learn that it always made sense to God, even if we don’t understand it. He’d have hope in … Well, hope in whatever a good and just God had in store for them.
But she had swallowed her pride because she felt it was only fair that if she gave young Pete extra responsibilities, she needed to give him extra authority and independence. She didn’t call him the little man of the house or any of that business. But she gave him the room to grow into a man.
As hard as she had tried, Alma had made some heart-wrenching mistakes raising her two boys. Doubts about the residue from these errors in their souls sometimes sucked little dabs of blood from her spirit like pesky mosquitoes. The bugs left itchy little bumps. Bumps that might get infected. And infect others.
Maybe the problems Hank and I had made Pete … But it’s not too late for him. If Becky walks away, there are other birds in the sky.
Pete smiled briefly, maybe to humor her, said, “does God give credit for partial solutions?”
Alma didn’t hesitate. “You bet He does.”
Pete nodded limply. Mom talked a different language than he did. Actually, Tom did too. So did Becky, but the translations usually made sense with Becky.
Usually. This reincarnation stuff she swore by, though; there was no Rosetta stone for that.
Right now living and dying and Mom’s Heaven and Tom’s blind cause and effect and Becky’s karma were swirling darkly inside him like a whirlpool that threatened to suck him down into Hell.
The area behind the forehead he nodded at his mother felt heavy, creamy, steaming, as if there was hot chocolate sloshing around in there. The opaque liquid was sweet but sticky and dark.
He couldn’t figure out the answers right now. He didn’t even understand the problems. The real issues were mixed like arsenic into the hot chocolate now oozing into the rest of his head.
Pete needed clarity. So he visualized a big plunger pushing the liquid down into his stomach.
Maybe Mom was right. No one gets a cheat sheet. Hell, the Guy who wrote the test couldn’t even know the answers, since we were all ultimately as unpredictable as that man Pete had shot. Mom would say God can see into our hearts. But is the heart He’s looking into really ours if we can’t see into it ourselves?
The virtual plunger cleared up the thoughts. The warm chocolate descending inside him froze. His concepts were no longer connected to the distant brown ice ball orbiting somewhere in his gut like a comet.
Pete told himself he was getting better and better at compartmentalizing this crap. But that dirty ice ball in his gut sometimes flew into sight to tell Pete the control was an illusion.
His cell phone rang. It was Tom. His voice was upbeat.
“Your target has stabilized. He’s going to make it. What do you say you and I head down to the TNT range and hone our skills, so you don’t let the next bear off the hook?”
They were silent a moment. Pete smiled thinly. Slowly, the smile widened. The bird chirps exploding in Pete’s head were bright sparks flying off a suturing welder that magically brightened his day.
“You’re mixing hunting and fishing metaphors. But maybe we can do both. It’s not like we need to go to work. You’re on.”
Maybe some lead from the Glock could blast away that ice.