Barry Hannah Competition 3rd Place–Nathan Gower

I'll be send­ing prize pack­ages out this Wednes­day. This is a good oppor­tu­ni­ty for oth­ers I've missed. If  you've been pub­lished in FCAC and you have not received a book from me please mail rusty.​barnes@​gmail.​com with your snail address.

What’s There to Talk About?

I always meet her, when I meet her, at 1:00 pm out­side the 24 hour pho­to place. I park my Explor­er in the sec­ond-to-last park­ing spot, next to the hand­i­cap space, and she shows up about ten min­utes lat­er in her husband’s Jag wear­ing some­thing that he’d bought for her, unknow­ing­ly, on his Mas­ter­card. Then she gets in and says some­thing sexy like Damn, I for­got my panties again. Then we go some­where – not just any­where, some­where classy, like the Rama­da or the Hyatt, or once in a while her lake house two hours away at Lake Cum­ber­land.  Then we com­mit adul­tery. Con­scious­ly. Some­times twice.
There are rules. No talk­ing about spous­es. No for­get­ting we have spous­es. And No love.  Can’t even breathe the word.

Hey babe,” she says get­ting in the SUV. A lit­tle white skirt clings to her thighs like an out­er lay­er of skin. Her hair curls around her ears, auburn, play­ful. She leans across the mid­dle arm rest, bites my ear­lobe.

You’re frisky today,” I say, turn­ing in to her, giv­ing her the kind of deep-throat kiss reserved for teenage love and midlife affairs. Her name is Kay­la. I think Kay­la sounds like a teenager’s name. Maybe that’s why I like her.

It’s got­ta be quick today,” she says. She needs to get back ear­ly because the babysitter’s sick.

Fine by me. It just means it’ll be a quick fuck, no time for the awk­ward after-sex con­ver­sa­tion. Maybe the sit­ter should get sick more often.

So, you know what would be fun?”  she asks. “If we did it some place new.”

New?”

Yeah, like, I don’t know, some­place exciting.”“Exciting, huh?  So you’re bored with me already. I see how it is.” I smile. But inside, my stom­ach drops. Your mar­riage is sup­posed to be bor­ing. Not your affair.

Come on, I just think it’ll be fun. Don’t you?” She puts her left hand on my thigh. What I think would be fun is if we just stick to the plan, get to the hotel, do our thing, and then make tracks. We can roll around in the back to the Explor­er for all I care. Let’s just make it hap­pen.

What do you have in mind?” I say, just so I can see where this goes. She smiles, a big, toothy grin, a lit­tle mis­chie­vous. “Well?” I say.

You’ll think I’m crazy.” She blush­es, just a lit­tle, pink cheeks.“Oh? Try me.”

Well, I was watch­ing this movie, like this made-for-TV crap on Life­time.”

This doesn’t sound good.”

No, just let me fin­ish. Nev­er mind. You’ll think it’s stu­pid.”

Well, you’ve already start­ed now.”

Okay, well any­ways, so I was watch­ing this movie and it was about this preach­er or priest or what­ev­er. I don’t know, I get them all mixed up. He had the lit­tle white thing on his col­lar, so I guess he was a priest.”

Some preach­ers have that. Like Methodists, I think.”

Well, any­ways, this priest or preach­er was real­ly a bad guy and he was hav­ing an affair with this girl.”

Epis­co­palians. That’s what I meant. Not Methodists.”

Can I fin­ish?”

Sor­ry.”

Okay, so any­way, it start­ed out real inno­cent and all, like they would just kiss and stuff, and then he would feel guilty and stop the whole thing.”

That’s what I don’t like about preach­ers,” I say.

What?”

Well, they’re just reg­u­lar peo­ple. I mean, they cuss and swear and stuff just like the rest of us. I knew this one who used to mow my neighbor’s lawn. He owned a lawn care ser­vice, kind of like his real job cause the church didn’t pay shit. Pas­tor Dan’s Lawn Care or some­thing like that. Any­way, so I used to see him mow­ing my neighbor’s lawn, and he’d get hung up in the grass or some­thing and I could see him mum­bling under his breath. Curse words.”

So what? You cuss all the time.”

Well, that’s my point. So preach­ers are just like us, except they have to hide it. Their sins or what­ev­er. And then they have to feel guilty about it. So then they lie about it to cov­er it up.”

Okay, for­get what I was say­ing.”

So they’re liars, too. That’s all I’m say­ing. Sor­ry, go ahead.”

Well, any­way, long sto­ry short, the priest-preach­er guy ends up screw­ing this girl right there in the church.”

In the church?”

Right on the altar.”

That’s sick,” I say.

Why is that sick? Sounds hot to me,” she says, lips curl­ing. A part of me agrees with her. But some­how it strikes too close to home, some­thing about it. Becky and I were mar­ried in a church, the one she grew up in. It was the last time I was in a church, eleven years ago next month. The thought of sex in a church some­how makes the affair dirt­i­er.

It just sounds kind of … I don’t know.”

Sac­ri­le­gious?” she says.

Yeah. I guess.”

Since when do you care about reli­gion?”

I don’t know. I don’t care, I guess. So you want to fuck in a church?” The words stick in my mouth like phlegm.

Well, you don’t have to make it sound so neg­a­tive.”

Sor­ry.  So you want to make love in a church?” But we’re not mak­ing love. You can only make love with some­one you love. I’m pret­ty sure that’s the def­i­n­i­tion. We’re just hav­ing sex.

I don’t know. It’s just an idea,” she says.

Well, all right.”

All right, what?”

Church-sex it is.”

I pull out of the park­ing lot, her hand rest­ing on my crotch.

***

We’ve been dri­ving around for twen­ty min­utes, wast­ing time, try­ing to find a suit­able venue. The Catholic church on 5th Street looked too for­mal, First Bap­tist too lit­tle, the com­mu­ni­ty church too dirty.

How about that one,” I say. “Beau­ti­ful win­dows. What’s the sign say?”

Beach­wood Epis­co­palian.”

How appro­pri­ate.”

Shut up. You think this is stu­pid don’t you?” She blush­es.

I smile.

I pull around the church to a small lot to the back of the build­ing. From the rear it looks like an old apart­ment com­plex, straight lines of dirty win­dows, a cou­ple of old stair cas­es lead­ing up to doors. On the left is a mod­ern addi­tion, large stained glass win­dows, steeple pro­trud­ing from the top, a holy phal­lic sym­bol. God has a sense of humor, too. Maybe this won’t be as bad as I think.

Nice lit­tle church,” I say.

Yep.” she says, “You got the rub­ber?”

I laugh out loud.

Enter­ing the church is sur­pris­ing­ly easy, the back door left unlocked. For a brief instant I hes­i­tate, try­ing to count the lay­ers of sin we’re get­ting our­selves in to. But nobody will know. And nobody will get hurt. The way I see it, if God’s already pissed about what we’ve been doing so far, screw­ing in his place isn’t going to make much of a dif­fer­ence.

The build­ing is only lit from the sun­light shin­ing through the win­dows: a good sign. It’s Mon­day, lunch time. The lit­tle church Becky and I used to go to was rarely staffed through­out the week. I sus­pect this one’s the same.

God, I haven’t been in a church in years,” I say, half whis­per­ing. It smells of old ladies, tal­cum and pow­der. Or is it flow­ers? I guide her down a lit­tle hall­way to the right, an arrow point­ing us in the direc­tion of the Audi­to­ri­um.

I thought they called it a sanc­tu­ary,” she whis­pers.

I guess that’s old fash­ioned. Church­es have to keep up with the times too, I sup­pose.”  The hall­way forks: to the left, anoth­er hall­way lead­ing to the Church office, to the right, dou­ble doors.

This must be it,” I say, my pulse throb­bing in my tem­ples.

Do you think anybody’s here?” She whis­pers.

It doesn’t mat­ter,” I say, “Just as long as they don’t know we’re here.”

I edge the doors open, a slight cry com­ing from the hinges. It’s all been too easy, I think. If it were wrong, it wouldn’t be this easy. God could keep us out if he want­ed to, right? I take a deep breath, the scent of Kayla’s hair engulf­ing my nos­trils. I’m ready.

God,” she says. “It’s beau­ti­ful.” She’s right. The room is cir­cu­lar, with pews inclined upward toward the back like a minia­ture sta­di­um. The stage pro­trudes out from the front, adorned with flow­ers, unlit can­dles fill­ing the gaps between them. Mul­ti-col­ored sun­light streams through stained glass, rest­ing in bro­ken pat­terns through­out the room. My God. How beau­ti­ful.

She moves up the aisle, turn­ing slow­ly, tak­ing in the room. I fol­low her.

I’ve nev­er been in a church like this,” she says, her eyes enor­mous, big and del­i­cate like rose petals.

So, you ready?” I unbut­ton my col­lar.

Oh. Yeah,” she says, eyes snap­ping back toward me. “I guess we need to hur­ry, don’t we?” There’s some­thing in her voice.

Dis­ap­point­ment?

You don’t sound all that enthu­si­as­tic,” I say, “This isn’t what you had in mind?”

No. I mean yeah, it is. Sort of.”

Sort of? Look at this place … it’s won­der­ful. We found the per­fect church. Nobody’s here but us. I mean, this is start­ing to sound fun even to me.” I unfas­ten my belt.

I know. This place is great. It’s just dif­fer­ent than I thought. I mean, I feel dif­fer­ent.  You know?”

No. I don’t know. All I know is that we have like ten min­utes to get busy and then get the hell out of here. I’ve played her game. I just want to get this lit­tle exper­i­ment over with. The truth is the whole thing is a lit­tle creepy. Sud­den­ly I’m aware of the itch of my col­lar rest­ing on my neck.

She turns from me, pac­ing near the front row, her hands tug­ging slight­ly at her skirt.

Do you ever … I don’t know. Feel guilty?” she asks. She doesn’t look at me.

Guilty?”

Yeah, like we’re doing some­thing wrong?”

Shit. I knew this was a bad idea.”

I’m just ask­ing.”

No,” I say, “you’re just con­fused. Every­thing was fine, and then we come to this god­damn church and you get all moral on me.”

So you do think it’s wrong. What we’ve been doing I mean.”

Jesus, Kay­la. I don’t know. We don’t have time for this.”

Don’t get mad at me. I’m just think­ing about things.”

What kind of things?”

I don’t know. About God, I guess.”

God?”

Yeah. Amongst oth­er things.”

Okay, so, not to be rude, but my lunch break is almost over, and you said it had to be quick today any­way.”

All right.” She sighs. She untucks her blouse.

Oh, come on. Don’t do that.”

Don’t do what? I’m just get­ting ready to do what we came here to do.”

But you don’t want to. I can tell.” And If I were hon­est, I don’t want to either. Her face is flushed. She looks like she did the first time we slept togeth­er, curled up in bed at the Rama­da. We talked that day, about guilt, about Becky, about Chris. We talked about keep­ing things sim­ple, about leav­ing our emo­tions at home. We would nev­er men­tion their names, nev­er think about how they would feel. We would still have sex with them at home, even if we had to think about each oth­er. And we did. And we have. But some­how, it feels like all of that is about to change.

I don’t know. Can’t we just talk?” she asks.

I smile, refas­ten my belt, sit down on the front pew.

So what’s there to talk about? You want to talk about God? Let’s talk about God.” I just want to get it all out in the open. You want us out of here, God? Prove it. No more secrets.

Just for­get it. You don’t have to be so sar­cas­tic about every­thing.”

She sits down on a step lead­ing up to the stage and hugs her knees.

Sor­ry.  I’m not try­ing to sound mean. It’s just … I don’t know. Aren’t you hav­ing fun?  I thought we were just hav­ing a good time,” I say, only half-way believ­ing myself.

I know. It’s just start­ing to feel wrong. Don’t you ever feel that?”

I do. Of course I do.

I don’t know,” I say. “We aren’t hurt­ing any­body are we? They’ll nev­er know.”

They? You won’t even say their names,” she says, her eyes sharp, hard, like dia­monds.

Because we agreed not to.”

But doesn’t that let you know that some­thing isn’t right?”

Damn it, Kay­la. Everybody’s immoral. Don’t you get that? I mean, maybe me sleep­ing around on Becky isn’t the right thing to do. So what? Nobody gets hurt by it. I might even be doing her a favor.”

How’s that?”

Well, I mean, I come and meet up with you once or twice a week, and I’m sat­is­fied. It takes stress off of her. You know?”

Well, what if she’s tak­ing stress off of you, too?”

What is that sup­posed to mean?” I know exact­ly what that’s sup­posed to mean. She’s right, too. I think about it every day.

Noth­ing. I just mean that you wouldn’t think that Becky was help­ing you out if she was screw­ing the mail­man or some­thing.”

We shouldn’t be talk­ing like this. We agreed not to talk like this.”

Talk like how?  Open­ly?  Hon­est­ly?” she asks, star­ing at her feet.

What are you try­ing to prove? I don’t know if you’re try­ing to make me feel bad, but it sure as hell isn’t work­ing. Besides, you’re just as guilty as I am.”

I know. Sor­ry. I’m just talk­ing. I’m not accus­ing. I just want to know that we both real­ly under­stand what we’re doing.”

What’s there to understand?”She sits silent­ly, head tilt­ed back­ward, eyes toward the ceil­ing. Sun­light streaks across her bare legs, her skirt hiked mid­way up her thigh.

I guess,” she says, “I guess I just want to know that we both under­stand that we’re wrong here. That what we’re doing is wrong.”

And what good would that do?  Admit­ting we’re wrong I mean.” Of course we’re wrong.

We’ve both known it all along. The fact is, some­times plea­sure trumps moral­i­ty. I don’t make the rules, I just play by them.

Well.  I don’t know.” She looks at me, her eyes search­ing my face. “I guess if we real­ly under­stand that it’s wrong, and we decide to keep doing it any­way … well, then there must be .… There has to be a good rea­son to do it. It would have to mean some­thing, you know?”

I’m not sure I’m fol­low­ing you,” I say.

She stands, the sun­light sil­hou­et­ting her body. God, she’s beau­ti­ful.

Do you love me?” she asks.

What? You can’t be seri­ous.”

I want to know.”

We agreed, Kay­la. We promised we wouldn’t talk like this. We’re just sup­posed to be hav­ing fun. That’s it.”

But that’s the prob­lem,” she says, her voice crack­ing like I haven’t heard before. “Don’t you get it?  It’s not fun any­more.  And so there has to be some­thing else.  Some­thing more.”I look away. I want to argue with her, tell her it is still fun, tell her she’s just think­ing too much. But I can’t.

I don’t know what I am sup­posed to say,” I tell her. And I real­ly don’t.

Tell me if you love me. Or not.”

What does it mat­ter?”

I don’t know. Maybe love makes it okay. You know? Like, even though we know it’s wrong, it could still be worth it.”
I sit still, engulfed in the qui­et, hat­ing that damn church. Hat­ing moral­i­ty. Hat­ing Love.  Lov­ing Kay­la. Not real­ly Kay­la. The idea of Kay­la. The girl that’s out of my reach, beyond me.  I look at her, a sin­gle strand of hair curl­ing over her eyes, and I know I’ll nev­er real­ly have her.  I know I nev­er real­ly did.

You real­ly believe that shit?” I ask. “That love makes it all okay?”

Well …” She says. “Well, if not love … then what?”

I want to go to her. I want to hold her. But all I can do is sit still, watch­ing the speck­led sun­light dance over her body.

Nathan Gow­er lives in Charlestown, IN with his wife and daugh­ter, both bril­liant. An MFA grad­u­ate from Spald­ing Uni­ver­si­ty, he cur­rent­ly teach­es com­po­si­tion and cre­ative writ­ing at Ivy Tech Com­mu­ni­ty Col­lege. A writer of short fic­tion, crit­i­cal essays, sev­er­al failed-but-attempt­ed screen­plays, and an occa­sion­al poem, his work has recent­ly appeared in the  lit­er­ary jour­nals Con­nec­tions and Par­a­digm.

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