Sonya Larson

God is Love is Love is Love

His lover suggested a lunchbox, plastered with spaceships and trucks, and at that moment Donald wished he’d come alone. He had brought along Morris to shop for his daughter, sensing that if he was going to mingle the two of them—like two unknown chemical compounds—then he’d better provide a distraction, something to focus the disaster. And so: here was Target. Morris was kind and eager and Donald felt weirdly responsible for him as he disappeared down the aisles.

“How about some Springsteen?” Morris shouted from somewhere unseen. “They’ve got your favorites. All that driving into the sunset…”

“No, no, no, no,” Donald muttered. He wandered after the voice, concentrating on the white tile of the floor. Molly was his only chance at a daughter. He needed to think.

He found him in Home Appliances. “How about a Dust Buster?” said Morris, examining a travel-sized one in a box. “This could also be for kids.” He shook it by his ear, assessing its durability. Morris was from an almost-poor family in an almost-poor neighborhood; he was a man of practicalities. Last Christmas—their second ever—Morris gave him a battery charger and a rain poncho. Batteries and a poncho. Why should Donald expect more now?

“She’s six,” he said. “She needs something memorable. Something unique.”

“Unique…” said Morris, scanning the shelves. “Like a car alarm?” He was grinning, being funny, but Donald couldn’t laugh about this. Not about his daughter.

Morris quieted. “Okay, okay,” he said, squeezing Donald’s arm. Donald held his fingers there—the rough, warm grip of them. “I know that you’ll pick something wonderful,” said Morris, and he left to look for alarms-for-the-lawn.

Donald wandered the perfume aisle, feeling sick. He might as well have been shopping for a pen pal. Living apart from his daughter gave him only a Greatest Hits knowledge of her tastes; his efforts felt hopelessly obsolete. Finally he stood before the bins of jellybeans—who doesn’t like food?—and selected the most exquisite flavors. He eased the bag into the glove compartment and drove them to her school.

There she was. His Molly. Standing in the parking lot like a chessman, rotund in her coat and thick scarf wound under her eyes. She pried open the back door and rolled onto the seat with a cold gust of air. Donald twisted to watch her, past Morris in the passenger seat, his smile aching his face. But she didn’t look at them. Just pulled at the scarf, revealing her hardworking cheeks. Donald reached over the shifting column and offered her the jellybeans, feeling more of a lover than a father. His continuous trying.

“What are these?” she said.

“Juicy pear and toasted coconut,” said Morris. “Your dad picked out each and every one.” He winked at Donald.

Which was irritating. Donald turned away and looked squarely at his daughter. “You remember Morris?” said Donald.

“Hi Morris,” she said, examining the jellybeans that hung limply in her hand. Donald wanted her to tear it open, to swallow them hungrily, but she only slid them in her backpack and zipped the zipper. She lowered her head to the seat. She closed her eyes.

Okay: no beans. Didn’t want to spoil her dinner. A good kid—he should be grateful. Donald faced the windshield and drove speedily to his suburban stucco, far from his ex. It was no Faye’s Playland, sure, but there was the park nearby and the neighbor’s dog and the garage he was proud of. They could have their own fun, couldn’t they? Their non-Tyco Toys, non-Faye fun!
He got everyone inside. “What shall we do first?” he said. “Boggle—your favorite? A round of Pictionary?”

Molly dropped her backpack and sighed. “Mom says I’d better nap,” she said. “After that I’ll come down and we can play Boggle then.” Donald forced a knowing nod. That made sense. That was logical.

She dragged her little body up the banister as Donald called up. “Just yell when you’re ready for scampi alla lilli! With fresh Roma tomatoes! From the garden!”

“Maybe she would’ve liked the car alarm,” said Morris in his ear. He saw Donald’s face and corrected himself, frowning. “Relax, Father Donald.” He rubbed Donald’s shoulders, kissed his cheek. “Practice relaxing.”

“Don’t call me Father,” said Donald. “It makes me sound like some sort of priest.”

“I’m sorry,” said Morris. “I would never insinuate such a thing.” Donald felt a smile in the kiss touching his neck. It made him want to cry—Morris soothing him like this.

In his study Donald leaned over his desk. He’d written letters without sending them, bought books without giving them. He was out of touch with his daughter; there was no need to make it obvious.

The term was coming out, which made it sound like a party. A liberation. But if it had been that easy, he would have done it so much sooner. Before finding himself with a wife and a daughter and a job researching T-cells. Donald loved them all: that was his problem. He loved their home. He loved Bruce Springsteen. When Molly was a baby, Faye would make videos of her thrashing giddily with wrapping paper, his “Thunder Road” record playing in the background. They could watch the videos ceaselessly; they were parents seized with love. It shook him alive, this happiness like a drug.

He was accustomed by then to almost-truth, to seventy and eighty percent truth. After a while that began to feel like the real thing.

One day Donald showed off a video of Molly to everyone at the lab, his bosses and students gathered around the television. “What a peach,” said the man over Donald’s shoulder. Donald twisted to see a slim-cheeked man from Distribution, delivering new pipets. “Do you mind if I watch? he said. Donald pulled up a stool, though the man wasn’t wearing proper lab slippers. “You can’t wear those in here,” Donald told him, watching the man’s smooth forehead gleam under the fluorescents. The tiny goosebumps disappearing up his sleeve.

And so it began. What did people think? This man Morris: a new friend. Someone Donald lunched with. Someone who volunteered in the lab. Like an intern Morris would linger late, idly helping to wash eyedroppers in the industrial sink, complaining only later that the chemicals smelled like death. They talked of parents, the Iraq surge. The intricacies of preferred toothpastes. They met in a quiet coffee house, far from the lab and full of strangers. Soon everything was discussable. How Donald fell in love with Faye, how he wasn’t sure about Faye. How he wasn’t sure about anything anymore. Morris listened.

When Donald spoke of Faye, of Molly, sometimes he could hardly breathe. But then Morris would reach over and thread his fingers through Donald’s hand. Rested them on the table like it was nothing, like no one would care.

Some moments needed nothing else. These cups of coffee. These tall, clear windows.

Before long their connection had a grip to it. Donald would gaze at Morris in a way that made him impossibly sad. He listened to Bruce—songs so pure, so transcendent, flying over car lots and porches at sunset, waiting for a girl. “I don’t get it,” said Morris. “The dusty beach roads? The Chevrolets? That’s my turf. And all these Mary’s and Wendy’s? You don’t even like women!” But Donald didn’t care. So much range of feeling he’d learned from Bruce Springsteen—the isolation, the backyard longing. The wind-whipped desire, drunk on a motorcycle.

He waited until after Christmas. Then he told Faye. The words, as he uttered them, seemed to harden in the air. She laughed, and then she crumbled. She opened the door and ran barefoot into the snow.

She called it a lie—the Most Destructive Lie of the Century. But it was anything but. It was a lifelong, straining, coming-of-age Truth.

But Donald didn’t feel liberated. Instead his new life worried him—it added stress. It made him apologize around the office. “Excuse me,” he’d say to a desk he bumped. “I’m sorry,” to a box of beakers. Trying to see Molly was like a game; she was a two-year-old behind doors, an invisible presence through the phone. Some days Donald would wander the corridors at night, out to the frigid parking lot, to the last remaining car, his car, dreading coming home to his life. He’d heave himself over the finish line of his doorstep, throw off his boots. To make dinner seemed impossible. A thing that could kill him.

And yet, here was Morris. Coming over with Chinese takeout and a toothbrush in his pocket. How would you like to feel perfect for a little while? Here’s this person.

Donald could have stood outside her door all evening. But finally Morris insisted on Pictionary, calling through the wood, and Molly finally emerged blinking from her room. Donald made carrot-currant casserole, staying in the kitchen. “Carrot-currant casserole,” said Morris at the living room table. “What am I drawing? Not that.”

“Teeth!” Molly shouted, squirming. She was perking up. Morris had that effect.

“Bingo!” he said. “Huge, ugly, scribbled teeth!”

Donald listened over his chopping knife. Even after Morris, his love for Molly was the only kind that scared him– she was almost too bright to look at. He was safer back here, shoving carrots down the garbage disposal. Through the chugging of the sink, he could hear her saying, “This giraffe card is the best card. I’ve drawn this card I don’t know how many times.” Where had she come from? Who thought of her?

She described the best animals, and the best animal crackers—the cinnamon kind that they had at church.

Donald flipped off the disposal. “Church? What? ” His voice was too loud.

“Pastor Walt and Judith give us the animal crackers. For learning all the songs.” She opened her mouth and sang, her voice a crinkled tin bell. “‘And I will raise you up, on eagles’ wings….’”

She recalled the words, her eyes rising to the ceiling, as if her tiny body was preparing to levitate.

“Hey,” Morris stopped her. “I can sing for you.” He held his pencil like a microphone. “Mary or Janie, get in my Chevy, yeah yeah yeah, something like that!” He crossed his arms. “See? Plenty singing here. You don’t need church.”

There was only one thing to do: call Faye. Donald pulled the telephone into the hallway, Morris standing to rush Molly to bed. “Did you put her up to this?” Donald demanded. “Are you taking her to Bethany Lutheran?”

“Right now I’m making tuna salad,” came her snide, shriveling, intolerable voice. “Hang onto yourself.” Faye faded under the sound of sinkwater. Donald could see her now, stacking the plates from the Wash side to the Rinse side, that ridiculous system. But he would not be deterred. He asked about this pastor, about Sunday school, any hidden youth groups or Bible camps. When did Faye decide this? How? Why? Was it those covert Christian rock bands? He hated covert Christian rock bands.

“This wasn’t our plan, remember?” said Donald. “Separation of church and state?”

“This isn’t about church and state,” said Faye. “This is only church and your daughter. And anyway, Donald, she needs community right now. Stability.”

Guilt sunk through him like a stone, her flat voice rattling him. When their lives became complicated, Faye’s statements became heavy and swift, as if to obliterate all objections in its path. She spoke without blinking: a demure, insistent robot.

“Stability—I get it,” said Donald. “None of this has been easy. But Faye–”

“Molly devised the idea of going to church on her own.”

“Devised? On her own? That’s bullshit, Faye.” Anger bloomed inside of him.

But she only sighed static into his ear. His blows didn’t matter like they used to. “Your expectations,” she said. “They get in the way of everything.”

Donald returned to the dining table, where Morris was stacking the Pictionary cards. “Maybe it’s not so bad,” said Morris. “Maybe it’s one of those Quaker, gay-friendly meetings.” He rubbed Donald’s back. “You know. ‘I am called to the Light, I love everyone? Hallelujah?’”

He would never believe Faye, just as she would never believe him. Not about the sex, not about her intentions. One lie began to stand for all others. As he’d packed the moving boxes, his old life erupting around him, he found a pink brochure in her side of the dresser. Is Someone You Know a Bugger? read the headline. Donald held it to his nose in disbelief. A person guilty of the crime against nature.

He’d saved the thing and showed it this morning to Morris. “I’ve never heard this term, buggery,” said Morris, propped up in bed, flipping and reading aloud. “That unnatural and detestable crime of carnal intercourse of man or woman with a beast. Or of human beings unnaturally with each other.” He chuckled. “Man or woman or beast. Who knew they were all equivalent!”

“At least the name sounds inviting.”

“Bethany Lutheran,” Morris repeated. “Sounds like a girl I almost dated.” He paused. “But then didn’t. Whew.”

He would see it for himself. Donald drove slowly, the roads weirdly clogged for a Sunday. The steering wheel was wet in his hands, as Molly kicked her legs in the passenger seat. All her details flooded through him—her tiny hands, her stare out the window, her down jacket that left little feathers clinging to her hair. She clutched in her lap a choir robe in a small plastic bag, crinkling in Donald’s ears.

Bethany Lutheran was an enormous pyramid that took up too much space in the sky. Donald circled around it. “Is there even a parking spot? How are we going to do this?”

“Hurry, Dad,” said Molly. “Everyone’s waiting for me.”

In the lobby people mingled in friendly groups under a haze of steaming donuts. It smelled delicious, greasy—alluring and bad for you. Donald took Molly’s hat and coat and scarf and mittens, carried their laundry load of bulk. He followed Molly around these strangers, as she waved and said, “Hi Dan! Hi Trudy! Hi Glenn!” They laughed and waved back and looked up to notice Donald. Startled, expectant, they reached to him for a handshake. But he looked away, hurrying past—he’d rather not meet any of them.

A man stood over the donut cart, his T-shirt bold with thick blue letters: I’m from New Jersey, but I was born again.

What expectations? His expectations were justified!

They walked into the gigantic room: Where were they supposed to sit? Did people have pews picked out already? He steadied himself, grabbing Molly’s hand. He chose the back: the farthest seats in the farthest pew. Beside them was a drum set and a gong and electric guitars propped on stands. Of course—he was right. Covert Christian rock bands.

Molly seemed to know everything; where to sit, which heavy book contained which passages and songs. She knew how to fold her belongings in a neat bundle and stash them under the pew. Donald opened a bible, its cover rough with creases of fake leather. He fanned the gold-edged pages, a musty breeze rising from them that made him gag.

“There he is,” Molly whispered, tugging his sleeve. A man, emerged from a side door, his bald head seeming to Donald as shiny as the hood of a used car. The program named him as Pastor Walter Williquette.

The man opened his arms in the wingspan of a hawk. “Please join with me,” he called. “In singing the opening Kyrie.”

“I once had a gerbil named Kyrie,” Donald whispered.

Molly glared. She opened her hymnal. “You’re on the wrong page.”

A woman sauntered up the stage, all hips and strapped into a green column dress. “That’s Judith,” said Molly. “She helps the kids sing.” The woman had the loudest eyebrows Donald had ever seen—two center balls of hair with long, painted lines stretching to her ears. Like two arching Q-tips. Judith stood by the gong and directed the band, her arms flapping, drums vibrating Donald’s feet.

He hated it all. But he could tolerate, gripping the bible and tearing at the hangnails on his fingers. But then it came time for Communion. Molly stood wriggled into her robe. “I’m next!” she whispered. Donald reached for her, panicked, but she ran to the front and he was alone.
Slowly lines of people stood up from their rows, shuffling to the front to receive Pastor Walter’s wafers and sip of wine. He looked so tall up there, bowing his head to each abiding soul, whispering the same secret words.

Donald wiped his hands on his knees. Was there no one else in this place who didn’t take Communion? Was he really the only one? The usher moved closer down the aisle. Next to Donald a woman and her daughter were getting ready, closing their hymnals. Finally the usher stopped at their row, blinking expectantly and signaling that it was their turn. Donald turned to the woman beside him. “Go ahead,” he whispered.

“What?” she said, eyes confused.

“Go ahead. I’m not going.”

“You’re not?” The woman paused. “Oh.” Her eyes refocused. “Honey, just go around the man. That’s it.”

Donald held his stomach. The endless line of people inched around him—a whole train car, emptying out. The teenager smelling of Old Spice, the rough-sweatered father, the grandmother’s elbow pressing passed his belly. “Sorry, sorry,” he said under his breath.
The row emptied, the heat of them gone.

 “They’re going to make her hate me,” said Donald. He said it quietly, while Molly was still getting out of the car. Morris was lifting the boxes of his new alarm system from the trunk. “I can see it now. The pastor’s eyes: they’re made of hate.”

“No Quakery stuff, then? Hmm.”

“Not at all. No Inner Light, no loving everybody.” Gruffy, the neighbor’s dog, came bounding in the garage and rabid with excitement. But Donald could hardly look at him. He thought of pastor’s speech impediment at “Psalm One-Chwelve,” and the chwelve lucky children who would star in the Winter Play. The bejeweled chalice he’d hoisted like pirate booty.

Molly emerged from the car and threw her arms around the Morris’s leg. “You missed me singing!”

“I’ll never forgive myself,” he said, waving a fist of wires. “But I unpacked this cool alarm system. Look what you missed.”

“You’ll come to my play, yes?” said Molly.

“A play?” he said, looking nervously at Donald.

“At church,” she said. “I’m singing in the very front row.”

“Yup,” said Donald. “She sure is.” Molly beamed at them and it crushed his heart. He adored her smiles but this one sliced him raw. He strained a smile back.

Morris changed the subject. He batted Gruffy away with the wire, reading the paper instructions. “First, arm the perimeter with the enclosed motion sensors. Okay, Molly MacArthur. Let’s stake out our territory.”

She fumbled the wires in her hands. “Let’s bring Gruffy!” she said.

“What are you talking about? This is to keep Gruffy out. This is a Gruffy embargo!”

Donald stood inside the kitchen and watched them hop around the yard, measuring with their feet as if walking a tightrope. Gruffy ran figure-eights around them, barking and slobbering at this new game. Molly seemed even more comfortable with Morris than with him: her own father. Maybe it was too much to ask. Maybe it was easier to know somebody like your father—an extended, offered hand—than to know your father himself. Someone with less to lose. Morris was a practice dad, the real one fuzzy, at a comfortable distance.

The next Sunday he approached Pastor Walt at the donut cart. “So I’m Molly’s father,” he said. Walt smiled and shook his hand. “What a joy to finally meet you,” he said, and Donald cringed at that word, finally. What a sweet girl, the pastor said—what a joy to have her in the play. He spoke in an awful, puppy-dog voice that was three octaves higher than normal people’s.

“Let me cut to the chase,” said Donald. “What the community here is doing for Molly—it’s nice, it’s just fine. But I’ve got some issues with you guys.”

“Oh ye