The fourth Tuesday
Billy (rarely called Butch at home, never during family prayers) lifted his head, neck vertebrae straightening until his face was level with his father’s, the minister and his son both kneeling on the stained and frayed carpet of the Goodman family’s living room.
“Father — it’s OK if I pray for the fencing team, isn’t it?”
Cyrus Goodman, minister of the First Baptist Church of Bark Bay, seemed to have been expecting his son’s question. His right hand remained clasped around his left wrist, knuckles raised barely above the carpet. “Surely you know, William, that the Lord commands us to pray for all souls.”
“Oh!” But before Butch could utter the words that were now forming in his mind, his mother, kneeling to his right (the youngest of the eight Goodman children being the only one of their youth at home this evening), raised her head, arms falling from the steeple she’d held at heart level to her side, her countenance politely commanding her son to be silent.
“What burden are you bearing for your friends?”
His mother’s questions brought a flood of memories to Billy’s mind. The events of today’s practice came first, the hurried explanation of epee fencing from Rex (Butch liked the fact he could score by hitting any part of his opponent’s body, as well as the absence of the right-of-way rules he had found so confusing in foil and sabre), being introduced to Micky and Little Paul, and then the sudden appearance of that girl, Annie saw the frail girl standing among the vertically stacked benches and tables like a nymph lurking in the woods, Annie and Micky coaxing her to join them in the cavernous space of the empty cafeteria — You want to fence, right? they’d asked her, receiving only reluctant nods in response, Coach Dan finally coming over and nearly pulling her away from the forest of furniture, a smile appearing on her face at last at his reassuring words, Nobody here has an agenda, my friend.
But it wasn’t those fresh memories that had prompted Billy’s question. The motivation had come from the entirety of his experience over the last several Tuesday afternoons. He scratched the short crop of hair on top of his tow head. “Everybody’s real nice.” Even Double-J, in his caustic way, seemed to invite his teammates to share in his negativity. “I just — don’t understand them.” His eyes widened as his gaze addressed his mother. “That’s what I want to pray for, Mother. I want to know how I should pray for them.” He glanced back to his father, hoping to find an approving look, discovering instead a smile that was unmistakably patronizing.
“Our prayers should not be offered to benefit our selves, or our friends, William. We pray in order to understand God’s will. Prayer is about listening to our Lord, more so than it is about our talking.” Cyrus licked his dry lips. “Do you understand?”
“I — ” Billy instinctively knew that uttering the word in his mind, guess, would lead to a conversation with steadily increasing levels of frustration — “yes, Father.” Billy closed his eyes, his fat fingers meeting in a ball at the front of his chin, knowing in that instant his answer would only come on some future Tuesday afternoon.