A Spot of Fiction: Church-Going

Blogger's Note: I started this story some time ago, then forgot about it. Just found it again tonight. I've loved Jodi's home state since the first summer I spent in Wall, but whether this story could be worth something, I dunno. Jinglebob? Anyone? I don't know where it's headed for sure, but is it worth pursuing?

We hadn’t been married more than a few months when the old man died. I don’t say “the old man” disparagingly — the whole family called him that, with a note of respect, while he was alive. Jenny’s grandfather had been a small, quietly pious man, the son of German Catholic immigrants — not the sort of man you picture taming the broad expanses of the western Great Plains, but, more often than not, exactly the sort you find.

Arnold Schraeder was no cowboy — he herded his cattle with a grain bucket and a stick, not a horse and a rope. The boy Arnold caught bullheads in the crick that snaked through the east pasture, and snared jackrabbits in the swale north of the little three-room house his father had built from the only construction material in abundance east of the Missouri River breaks — sod. As a young man, he cut and turned that same thick sod with steel single-bottom plow behind two massive, plodding oxen, shirtless and shoeless, in his father’s old breaches too long for his short legs and too wide for his slight frame. A set of narrow suspenders kept them up, and his mother laughed and called him “a strapping young fellow.” She conversed like a native speaker in both English and German, and could sing in Latin. His father spoke English like an Indian, and knew nearly as many words in Lakota. Herman Schraeder was reticent, gruff and loving in his way — which was to give presents whenever he could. Hard candy, a harmonica, a tortoise-shell comb, dark chocolates — he was clever with what little money they had, and had a knack for getting things even in those remote surroundings.

Herman and Susanna missed church only in the very worst winter weather — when the snow blew in too deep for the cart, they walked the two miles. St. Joseph the Worker stood atop a windy hill to the west of the Schraeder place: eight short pews beneath a tiny whitewashed steeple, with a small cast iron cross above the altar and hard wooden kneelers. The family had its regular pew and its kneelers bore the marks of Herman’s faith — two shallow impressions worn smooth and polished white by prayerful knees. The wood, like the church, provided the old farmer with what he expected — humility, grace and some small measure of forgiveness. He believed he deserved nothing more.

Herman was buried four years when the local population jumped to ten families, then a dozen. The diocese authorized the construction of a new church, and Arnold (who, between morning and evening chores, swung his hammer with the rest of the men in the parish) brought the well-worn kneeler home and affixed it to the foot of his bed. The next winter, when he knelt in his skivvies to offer thank to God for his young bride, she knelt beside him, took his hand and smiled.

“It’s as Tobia and Sarah did,” she said. “‘They said together, ‘Amen, amen,” and went to bed for the night.’”

He squeezed her hand without looking away from the crucifix above the bed. She took the squeeze as affirmation, and said her own prayer of thanks for a man who knew even the lesser books of the Bible, chapter and verse. She said the Lord’s Prayer, watching him from the corner of her eye. He prayed with such urgency!

In the coming weeks Lillian Schraeder learned two things about her new husband’s faith: that although he was church-going man, he was no scholar of scripture — and that she had been his first, too.

* * * * *

Lilly was twelve years gone when Arnold passed. That second church was gone, too, or rather, converted to secular use as the favored watering hole of the younger generation of farmhands. The Mission Bar served as sanctuary and confessional for young men and women too broke to leave town and too bored to stay home. That it was somewhat seedier than the other local dives is perhaps not that surprising — considering that the owner had no qualms about converting a house of worship into a bar ...

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