Aram sat in the small living room of the rectory he shared with his wife and two sons and watched the 11 o’clock news, unaware that tomorrow he would lie to his wife for the first time, leave home dressed in his priest’s collar, and drive away in search of the photo of his dead father. The stories of a local charity 5K and the robbery of a convenience store preceded the national news segment. When it emerged, trailing a vibrant commercial for dish soap, the news anchor stated the facts already repeated to Aram at 5 o’clock, 6 o’clock, and 10 o’clock. The newscaster explained how pictures of tortured Syrian citizens had been smuggled out of the prisons in Damascus. Keeping her face professionally neutral, she added that the United Nations would display them for the next several weeks in their front gallery in New York City. Aram waited, trying to prepare himself for what would come next.
The living room of Aram’s home, the rectory of St. Xenia’s, offered three seating options: a love seat covered in faded freesias, a stiff wooden chair found on the side of the road, and a second-hand recliner with the previous owner’s anxious scratch marks nibbled into the green fabric at the end of each arm. Aram sat in the wooden chair, it being the easiest to move closer to the family’s television.
The sound on the television dipped into silence just before the photos appeared across the screen. Aram could hear the slow rasping of his youngest son’s breathing through the thin shared wall of living room and bedroom. His wife, Lydia, and their older son slept quietly. It was their youngest whose breath seemed to come for Aram as an unexpected gift each time.
Aram watched the television and saw the now familiar arrangement of easels, each holding a photo framed by an incongruous white border. His first confrontation with the images had been accidental, a result of the alchemy of family life delaying dinner. His wife’s burning of the rice and his sons’ protests to choose a sweet drink for dinner had necessitated an additional trip to the grocery store, and Aram had snapped on the television for noisome comfort in his unexpectedly silent house. When Aram first encountered those familiar arches of brow and cheekbone, his mind escaped into a pathetic consideration of how unfair it was that, even a week or two before, those easels may have displayed something beautiful. It was not the first time his mental frailty had caused him to feel ashamed.
His seat only a few feet from the small screen now, Aram told himself that, this time, he would not fail. Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner. Aram spoke the prayer quietly to himself, it having served as a touchstone of comfort for him since childhood. Dear Lord, give me strength, he added for good measure. Brown body after brown body flashed across the screen, emaciated, nude, with only polite blurs provided across eyes and genitalia. As much as Aram wanted to look away, he forced his gaze forward, unblinking. He squinted his eyes into focus and ignored the breathlessness growing in his chest, but once again his efforts were not enough.
The segment ended with a perfunctory pause before the camera panned from the anchor desk to the sports correspondent, leaving Aram to face his failure in the company of high school basketball scores. He struggled the same way when reciting the Nicene Creed during Liturgy. Even now, a priest heading his own parish, Aram’s mind sought refuge each time he recited the Orthodox stance on Christ’s painful crucifixion, only returning to full attention at the end of the prayer where he decried the strength of the Holy Spirit, which, lacking a physical body, he believed could never feel pain. Instead, his mind’s wanderings in church focused mostly on banal thoughts of hunger–having fasted from the previous evening in preparation for Sunday’s Communion–and Aram would feel an atavistic guilt afterwards for examining his own body’s needs in lieu of Christ’s.
This time the appearance of the lifeless bodies on the screen had led Aram to think of the booths at Flynn’s Tavern, where he and his family ate Sunday dinner every week. Not because the food was particularly good, but because, over the years since Aram became priest at St. Xenia’s, he had found Flynn’s booths to have the highest seatbacks of any other restaurant in town. In more exposed eateries, even in his black collarless shirt with the white flash at the throat, Aram and his family would face the ire of certain restaurant patrons. He had cried in front of his sons after a large man in a pink shirt and grey suit coat leaned over their table of eggs and bacon at Perkins and whispered “sand niggers” before loping to the register to flirt with the blonde cashier girl. Listening to the broadcaster describe another win for the Fighting Cardinals, Aram realized he’d traded his attention for the comfort that came from hating the man in the pink shirt.
It was the final news broadcast of the evening, and Aram let out a dolorous cry from his diaphragm, angry in his guilt. He remained in his seat, shrunken against his own backbone, unaware of the time until his wife entered the room, seeking out his warm body for their bed.
“What is it?” she asked in her accented Arabic.
Lydia’s voice was quiet even in its urgency, careful to convey her concern without waking her children. Aram thanked God daily for his wife, whose maternal instinct regularly spilled from their sons onto her husband. Even before his mother died during his first year of seminary in Damascus, Aram knew her maternal love filled a segment of his heart assigned only to her, never to be replaced by anyone else. Six years into their marriage, Aram felt the same way about his wife.
Aram remained hunched over, his face hidden in his hands. He felt his wife’s soft touch, and turned his chin upwards, accidently bumping her nose as she crouched down to his level.
“Aram?” Somehow his name’s soft edges became harder when she spoke it.
Confronted with his strong and competent wife, Aram felt a desperate need to unburden himself. Perhaps if they could share this pain together, then—but Aram found himself unwilling even to finish the thought.
“I saw my father,” Aram spat out the words in English.
Lydia waited patiently, her face a calm question mark.
“On the news, he was there. In the prison photos.” Aram felt his mouth go dry and thorny.
Lydia stroked his face and, bending to Aram’s seated height, brought his left cheek to rest between her breasts. Born in America to Lebanese immigrants, Lydia knew of Syria mainly through the stories her husband shared. She’d never met her father-in-law, who had been unable to travel for their wedding. Correspondence with Aram’s father occurred primarily through e-mail, and in turn through Aram. Although it had been weeks since Aram arrived home bearing a note printed out from St. Xenia’s office computer, the family sought assurance in the fact that communications from Damascus had been fragile for months.
Aram’s long dark hair, usually worn in a ponytail at the nape of his neck, was coming loose from the raking of his hands through his crown, a nervous habit of Aram’s since Lydia had known him. She shifted back to place her hand on his right cheek and the soft hairs of his well-trimmed beard tickled her palm. Her eyes traveled over her husband’s face.
“They would never hurt a priest,” Lydia finally said, matching Aram’s English.
For a moment Aram let himself sink into the familiar smell of his wife’s skin. Her own dark hair fell in thick waves around his face, and he felt protected for the first time that evening.
“Where is your faith, my love?” Lydia continued, her voice even calmer than before. “God will protect him. “
Aram looked up at his wife and the clarity of her faith shone back from her brown eyes tinged with gold. For the first time in their shared life, Aram felt too ashamed to meet her gaze, and instead stared at her bare feet, considering what it would really mean if his father were dead.
The next day, a Saturday, Aram rose early and, for the first time in ten years, skipped his morning prayers said standing in the Eastern corner of his home. Instead, Aram dressed hastily in his priestly collar and crept down the hallway to their car by only the pre-dawn haze cast through their thin curtains. Before going, he left a hastily scribbled note telling Lydia he was traveling to New York for a meeting with the Bishop. He was careful not to slam the front door, which waxed and waned from bloated to emaciated as the seasons passed from summer to winter and regularly required a forceful shove to throw the deadbolt properly. Aram folded his tall and lanky frame into their car and left his sleeping family behind. Sunlight arcing over the edge of the earth caught the golden dome of St. Xenia’s next door as he drove away, blinding Aram for a few seconds as he exited his driveway.
Aram changed in the gas station bathroom on the edge of town into dark blue jeans and a white button-down shirt. He bought a coffee on his way back to the car and noticed the cashier suspiciously eyeing the bundle of dark cloth smashed into Aram’s left hand as he counted out the $1.25 in change. Trying to sip the coffee before returning to the highway, Aram could only choke down a few sips before his torso shuddered and he lost his grip. The coffee’s acid churned in his empty stomach. He threw the rest of the drink away when he pulled over next, on his way to being sick in a bathroom somewhere in New Jersey.
Aram anticipated waiting in line at the UN, and prepared himself to be patient. He recalled the news anchors for each of the four broadcasts he’d watched emphasizing how important the photos were in connecting Americans to the war in Syria. When Aram arrived, the gallery boasted only three visitors, all of them college-aged, white, and clearly known to each other as they moved in a group from image to image.
Aram stood on the linoleum outside of the gallery and felt the entrance into the viewing area gape at him like an empty mouth. He was certain that, once he entered, he would be swallowed whole, and so he waited, still hoping to be rescued. Still hoping that his wife was right. Or that she was wrong. He couldn’t fathom either outcome.
The gallery was enclosed entirely by glass doors and walls, allowing Aram to watch the tiny population bearing witness to his country’s despair as he delayed his own entry. Aram saw them gasp in unison, cover their mouths with their hands, shake their faces side to side in motions of denial. A young woman clad in a navy pea coat and what appeared to Aram to be stylishly ripped jeans took out her phone and snapped a picture of herself standing in front of a photo of a young man, bare except for a dirty grey cloth thrown around his waist and blooming red punctures across his thighs and chest. He saw her expression, appropriately downtrodden for the photo, turn to a delighted scrutiny as she reviewed it on her phone.
Aram pulled the handle on the transparent door into the gallery too hard and the glass rectangle rebounded out of his hand and smacked into the surrounding frame soundlessly, releasing a gasp of air into his face. Aram tried again, steadying his muscles this time, and finally stepped into the sterile space designated for the photo display. He estimated there were several dozen photos arranged in the gallery, but it took Aram less than two minutes before he found his father.
Staring back at him from the 2-foot by 4-foot print was the face he had traced since childhood. Aram was silent as his eyes confronted the naked and lifeless shell of his father, at least forty pounds lighter than the last time he’d seen him. Waiting together at the airport for Aram’s flight to refuge in America, the photo of their merciless leader planting a tree incongruously adorning the wall behind them, Aram spent the last few minutes in his living father’s presence trying fruitlessly to convince him to abandon their country at the brink of war. In the United Nations, gazing at the familiar contours of his bloodline, Aram remembered his father’s last words that day to be “God is my refuge,” but Lydia’s assurance from the night before still rang in his ears, clouding his memory.
Watercolor bruises marked his father’s bare chest. Aram was determined this time, seeking out the weakened but still present sinews of his brain to tether him to reality. He knew his only hope of a resolution was in method, and so he divided the image into portions to be memorized. Upper right corner: grey cement floor with a crack running diagonally, shards of rock scattered haphazardly. Center left: his father’s cheekbone, protruding obscenely from the cavity of his mouth, his beard greyer than Aram remembered and unkempt. Center right: one eye, green with gold at the center of the iris, the whites rimmed with fulminating red veins.
Aram cycled through the portions of the picture, one, two, three times, hoping with each iteration for a revelation of some detail that would show he was wrong, but his scrutiny only further proved that his father had been abandoned. Though his eyes remained dry, his right eyelid began to twitch involuntarily as he continued his circuit. Left to right his gaze traveled, and Aram felt his hope abate further with each loop.
Eventually the three young people left, and Aram found himself alone in the gallery and promptly vomited on the white floor beneath his father’s photograph. Aram could not estimate how long his heaving lasted, only that it continued until he gasped for air. He left it there, the remains of his coffee and the beginnings of his grief, for the next group of witnesses to examine. Aram’s body told him, finally, that this was enough.
Back in his car, Aram saw the black pants, black shirt, and white collar heaped together as if a collapsed man sat beside him in the passenger seat. He flipped open his TracFone and saw Lydia had called five times, but left no message for him. As much as he wanted to hear his wife’s voice, Aram felt he couldn’t bear to hear her denials. He’d been taught to view marriage as a tapestry woven richer and more luxurious over the years, and he didn’t want to consider yet how the threads of their shared life were unraveling at pace with the rest of his world. Reaching out to gather up his uniform, the flaccid weight of the clothing sagging in his hand, Aram’s stomach heaved again. With one hand at his mouth, he felt betrayed by his body as the bitterness of disgust overtook his grief.
The three hours in the car passed without Aram’s mind consciously attending to a car, or an exit, or a lane shift. He spent the time behind the wheel in reminiscence, automatically clicking his blinker or flicking the switch to wash debris from his windshield while his mind traveled back to Damascus. In the past, Aram would have said it was a miracle he arrived safely back at home that Saturday evening.
Aram drove and the cement bridges and chain link fences gave way to the wild greenness of rural highway medians. A bird mistakenly crashed into Aram’s windshield and then ricocheted off as he proceeded down the highway in his small car. He could not tell the type of bird from the quick glimpse he was allowed—he thought perhaps it had a white breast and grey wings—but he clearly distinguished the hard slap of its skull against the safety glass in front of him and knew it was dead.
Surprisingly, such a quick death comforted Aram. On a day so dominated by his other parent, it reminded him of his mother.
A decade ago, his mother died unexpectedly from a stroke. Aram had come home for the weekend from his seminary studies to find his mother prostrate on the ground, a pot of chickpeas bubbling on the stove. Before the funeral service, Aram told his father that he might not return to the seminary.
After the funeral, not even stopping to remove his priestly garments, his father took Aram’s hand and led him through the annexes of their home, the heavy black cloth of his cassock whispering an unintelligible message to Aram on the edges of the walls, past figures of grieving family and platters of fragrant food. The two men ended their pursuit at the icon wall of their home, facing towards Jerusalem. A candle lay lit inside the red vigil, illuminating the image of a grown Jesus. Without prelude, his father thrust Aram’s hand over the flame. Aram instinctively jerked his arm out of his father’s grasp and tears pricked his already savaged eyes.
“God’s love is a fire, Aram. Unprepared, His embrace will consume you. Prepared, there is no greater joy.” His father’s voice broke on the last word, and it took him a moment of clearing his throat before he spoke again. “Your mother was ready.”
Aram’s father reached out and, smearing the wick of the candle between thumb and index finger, extinguished the flame and returned to tend to their guests. Aram was left alone, rubbing the tender wound forming in the soft pink of his palm.
Now, as Aram swiftly closed the distance between himself and his home, he tried to reproduce the same assurances. His father had been ready, he told himself. His father was enlightened, he repeated.
“He is with God now,” Aram said out loud, trying out the shape of the sounds he’d spoken so many times in his collar and epitrachelion to old widows and, once, to a young family. The words felt gelatinous, their presence indistinguishable from the contours of his tongue. He had a sense that, were he to manifest them into three dimensions, the words would not be visible by color or edge, but only by the blurring softness given to objects they enclosed.
When he pulled onto his street, the golden domes of St. Xenia’s loomed over the horizon and Aram was struck with a sudden urge to accelerate. He thought he could join with the heavy industrial trucks that regularly cut through his supposedly residential street and continue driving. That or—alternately—Aram considered braking unexpectedly and forcing one of those trucks into a collision. These urges frightened Aram, as much for what they revealed about his own self as what they revealed about the consequences of his father’s death.
Aram did turn into their crumbling driveway, and the soft crackle of the asphalt under the tires brought his family to the door and windows at the front of the house. Aram glanced at the clock inside the car and, for the first time during his journey home, registered the time. It was after 8 pm.
Lydia kissed Aram fully on the mouth at the entrance to their home, the front door opening into the living room, but kept her eyes closed. “Are you hungry?” she asked, turning her body sideways to allow him through the door. He felt, rather than saw, her lift the bundled street clothes from his hand and turn away towards their bedroom.
“No,” he called down the short hallway at her back. His two sons pounced on him in turn, demanding hugs and an ear each as they launched into stories from their day.
“Mamma took us to the movies,” his oldest said.
“She bought us popcorn,” the youngest one interrupted.
“Which movie . . . “ Aram began to ask, caught in the joy of his sons, but Lydia had reappeared.
“I was so worried—I must have called you twenty times,” and here she finally looked him in the eye, “so I took the boys out to get my mind off of you lying dead somewhere in a gutter.” Lydia’s voice sounded unfamiliar to Aram as she spoke.
Their oldest son gasped and their youngest son giggled. Both considered their parents invincible.
Exhausted and bereft, the words flew out of Aram’s mouth, his sarcasm unchecked and instantly regretted. “But I’m a priest.”
“What?” Aram heard Lydia clip the end of the word sharply with her teeth.
Aram blinked and tried to walk into the kitchen. Their sons were staring at their parents, unsure how to handle such an unfamiliar situation. Their parents rarely fought, almost always in hushed tones and always away from their children.
Lydia had spent an entire day in disbelief at her husband’s actions. She was a good wife, she’d told herself throughout the day. She’d been taught since childhood to demand respect.
As Aram passed by her in the small living room, Lydia raised her hand and set it against her husband’s cheek, feeling again the plush hairs of his beard beneath her palm. Aram stopped, his eyes softening. Perhaps he could avoid telling her, he thought. Once he told Lydia his father was dead, Aram knew it could never be untrue again.
“I called the Bishop’s office,” she said, her voice quivering. “There was no meeting today.” A single hot tear streamed down her right cheek. “And then you arrive home with a change of clothes—not even hidden,” Lydia’s voice, more familiar to Aram now, had risen in its anger while her eyes remained on her husband.
Their oldest son stared at the ground, one hand on the hard wooden chair. Their youngest had crawled between the wall and the recliner and begun to cry.
“What can I think?” she continued.
“You think I’m having an affair?” Aram asked.
Lydia flinched at the word, humiliated that it would ever be spoken in her home, let alone in front of her children. She stared at Aram, her hand still on his face begging for reassurance.
Lydia did not want to talk about death, Aram thought in disbelief. She wanted to talk about life. A laugh, high-pitched and grating, escaped his mouth.
And then Lydia slapped him. The skin of her palm connected with his cheek so hard that it managed to crack the air around his face.
Aram was speechless for a moment before all of the bitterness and fear spilled out of his mouth at her, his partner in life.
“Why are you worried? You are the wife of a priest. God will protect you.” Sarcasm coated each syllable.
Lydia’s face registered shock, both at what she had just done and at the vileness of her husband’s words. Aram grasped her hand in his and pulled it down towards his chest.
“Isn’t that right? God protects those who deserve it?” Aram flung her hand away with such force that her shoulder joint snapped in recoil.
The family stood for a few moments, no one daring to speak until finally Lydia wiped the edge of her hand across her eyes, cleared her throat, and announced it was time for bed.
That evening Aram lay alone on the loveseat in the living room, his feet undisciplined and jutting over the edge. Once again the soft chatter of his youngest’s lungs filling and emptying entered the room and all Aram could do was listen as the remaining members of his family slept.
Aram heard the woman’s confession after Liturgy the next day. She’d approached him before the Matins service had begun, her white mantilla leaning off the left side of her head as if she’d placed it there in a hurry, and asked Aram to hear her confession after the final kissing of the cross at the end of the two services. Aram was running late himself and had cut several prayers and readings for the daily recognition of Saints from the Matins, not concerned if the few attendees at that hour noticed his abbreviation. If Lydia had not been awake and ready to leave when he emerged from the living room, he would not have held the preliminary service before Liturgy. In fact, Aram might have purposefully missed Sunday Liturgy for the first time in his life.
Instead, he fulfilled his duties as priest, singing the redundant ektenia and communing his flock, albeit with a slight tremor in his hands. Aram knew he did not have the stamina or the message for a homily. The altar server, a teenage boy named Zayne, was confused at first and couldn’t seem to grasp that Aram would not be using the lectern for both the Gospel reading and his sermon. The wooden stand remained in front of the altar doors for half of the Anaphora as the congregation prepared for Holy Communion. Finally, Aram saw Zayne’s lanky form dragging it back to the far corner of the iconostasis that separated the parishioners from the altar and the priest.
Before Aram heard the woman’s confession, he stood in front of the altar at the end of the Liturgy and held a large golden cross for the parishioners to venerate. Lydia paused and whispered in his ear before she kissed the cross.
“Don’t be too long,” she said. “The boys are hungry.”
Aram’s heart lifted for a moment at the break in her silence towards him, but knew a few seconds later his hope to be premature. Lydia kissed the cross, but avoided kissing Aram’s hand. The common sign of respect for a priest withheld by his own wife, Aram knew he was not forgiven.
Aram was delayed behind the altar each Sunday, not just by confession-seeking parishioners but by his priestly duties. He knew, and had known since his father taught him as a small boy serving behind the altar, that the remnants of Communion could not just be left in the chalice or thrown into the garbage—prayers and reverence were required. When the last parishioner had come and gone, Aram replaced the golden cross on the altar, noted the half-filled chalice awaiting his attentions, and hurried to the side room where the woman was already waiting.
As had always been done by priests of his church, Aram placed a square of gold cloth, measuring two feet by two feet, over his confessor as she bent over a small stand that held an icon of Jesus. Aram watched as she placed her hands on each side of the icon, her right hand tracing the limbs of a smaller gold cross resting on the stand. The cloth was embroidered with as many crosses as the fabric could fit, and the smell of decades-old incense and beeswax that shed from the cloth as he raised it pierced Aram’s chest with a sharp pain of familiarity. Aram did not recognize this woman, perhaps because she was a visitor from another parish and perhaps because his preoccupied mind could not retrieve her features from his memory.
Motes of dust floated out into the air when he held the cloth above the woman’s head, and as Aram’s gaze shifted from the thin polyester shirt covering the woman’s back to their shared surroundings, he was struck by their shabbiness. This room where God supposedly channeled himself through Aram in order to cleanse the sins of the confessor also housed Aram’s extra vestments, stockpiles of candles, and icons scarred by the lipstick of elderly women and in need of a thorough cleaning. Nestled into the side of the church’s altar, the room could only be described, if Aram were generous, as tangentially blessed. Blooms of mold on the ceiling tiles showed where water leaked in from the church’s rotting roof. Air seeped through the poorly fitted frame from the room’s one uninsulated window, wheedling and songless. As Aram held over this woman the blessed fabric used to shield both confessor and priest from their guilt, the tremor he’d noticed earlier returned. Aram sensed decay all around him.
Trying to steady his hands, Aram laid them on the woman’s shoulders in a semblance of paternal comfort, reading the words of petition and penance from his Liturgikon. He saw that her hands were swollen, the peach flesh overlapping around the thin metal bands she wore. When Aram spoke he noticed she traced the peaks of their extravagant crucifix, an extra beam at both top and bottom to show the world they were not Catholics.
The woman spoke, her breath slightly ragged as she unburdened herself of her sins. Aram tried to listen, but found his mind wandering to a cheekbone. He conjured a vacant eye, and beneath it a deep and empty pit. Aram felt himself begin to perspire. His lungs seemed punctured and he could not catch his breath.
Silence brought him back to the room he shared with his confessor. The woman was finished and he felt the slight rise of her shoulders as she tried to lift her gaze, questioning whether he was paying attention. Her posture asked why he hadn’t uttered the final prayer of absolution, and so Aram, only wishing to leave the room, hurriedly made the sign of the cross and removed the heavy cloth from the woman’s shoulders. Her Sacrament complete, she turned to leave, pausing first to reach out and kiss Aram’s hand. Her mouth was moist on his skin and he instinctively wiped it away on the fabric of his vestment.
Alone now, Aram moved through the arches connecting the room to the altar, pausing in front of the mirror hung to allow the priest to check the placement of his vestments before service began. Aram knew each piece must be perfectly balanced. If not, the entire artifice would falter. He gazed at the heavy brocade cloth shrouding his abdomen, his chest, his groin. Doubt gnawed at his throat.
Aram looked in the mirror and saw his dark and well-kept beard, the liquid eyes, the hollow bones. He could see the icon of Christ behind him, each Orthodox altar boasting as many depictions of the Lord as the plaster and wood would allow. He closed his right eye, his bad eye, and saw Christ crisply robed in red and blue. He closed his left eye and saw his father. Aram repeated this over and over until the two became one blurring wheel of color and both his father and Christ disappeared.
Aram ripped off the cuffs of his priestly robes first, tearing at the laces with his teeth. Flinging them to the ground, Aram threw himself onto the table at the center of the altar. The corner jabbed its pointed edge into his stomach, and Aram relished for a brief moment the simplicity of physical pain. The chalice sat with the remains of Communion, waiting for Aram to consume God in the flesh. In seminary, Aram was taught that nothing could be more depraved than leaving God, naked and alone in the world.
And so Aram poured out his mourning with the chalice’s leavings of wine and bread, relishing the blooming gashes of crimson on the pristine whiteness of the altar. He removed the long pendulum of the cross he wore and smeared it with the glutinous bits of Eucharistic bread now littering the table. Aram thought of his wife and the belief that once shielded them both, but now only protected her. He removed his wedding ring and dropped it into the chalice, the clink of the gold against gold gentler than he’d imagined.
Standing back, sweating and bereft, Aram remembered his hungry children, waiting patiently for him to return. A primal cry escaped his body and seared his mouth. They will always be hungry, he thought.
The pressure that followed Aram’s revelation was tender, almost imperceptible at first. It seemed to cradle Aram by the shoulders before bearing down with greater emphasis, winding through his ribs and lungs until he found himself enveloped by his own body. Aram lifted his hand in search of freedom, but the rich tapestry of his robes imprinted into the soft pads of his fingertips, deadening the pulse that beat below.
They were at Flynn’s Tavern again, as they were every Sunday after Liturgy. Aram sat on the edge of the booth across from Lydia, their sons creating a physical buffer between their parents. Aram tried to sip his water, but found his parched lips couldn’t grip the glass. Water trickled down his chin, and when Lydia reached out with her napkin to wipe away the moisture from Aram’s face he found himself shouting out the words.
“My father is dead.”
Lydia’s hand paused in mid-air, the napkin dangling its paper corners over the greasy plastic menus. The boys stopped their fidgeting long enough for silence to fall at their table.
“He’s dead,” Aram shouted again into his wife’s face. “I saw him yesterday, in that gallery filled with the pictures of other men God failed to protect.”
Aram watched as understanding crept across his wife’s face. He struggled to catch his breath, fruitlessly pulling at his tight priest’s collar in the hopes of gaining some extra space to breathe. Lydia’s hand dropped to the table, the napkin soggy as it sopped up the water droplets sweating around Aram’s glass.
“Everything okay here?” a too-bright voice chirped. Aram glanced up to see a tall man in a pink shirt and tie gazing with concern at Aram’s family. The man’s name tag read, “Samuel.”
Aram didn’t stay to respond. He rose from the booth and began to take broad strides towards the doors that led outside. He didn’t know if his family was following. He did know that, if he didn’t leave now, he’d never be able to return.
Halfway across the lobby Aram’s legs gave way and he crumpled to the floor, his breath now just a raking scratch over his tongue. Aram could feel so many eyes on him, traveling up and down his body for answers.
No one touched him.
Until he felt hands at his throat, ripping the collar open. Aram heard the soft tinkle of buttons liberated from their thread as they landed on the cool tiles of the restaurant’s floor. Lydia gripped him at the back of his neck and eased Aram’s body upright. Wordlessly, husband and wife walked through the glass doors, their small sons following behind them. It took only a few seconds for the restaurant to return to its familiar rumblings of conversation and clinking silverware, the only remnant the small white collar left drifting on the tile floor.