Short story entry in the October What a Character! contest
"Yeah, I poured all the concrete for the driveway up to the gate, and the city did that part out to the street." Tim Prior gestured twice to make sure his neighbor got the picture. "I also poured that curb on the south side of the driveway. As you can see, the lot next to us sits a little higher than ours so when it rained, water ran from their driveway onto mine. I planted them two trees and all of them bushes, and I ran the sprinkler system over to this side of the property. If you wanted to, you could run a dripline down through there." He pointed in the direction of the bushes. "The rest of the yard's on timer."
"That makes it a lot easier. I still drag a hose." The neighbor was a naturally reticent man. Scrupulously courteous, almost to a fault, he stayed to himself for the most part. He and Tim had lived across the street from one another for twenty years, and they had each moved in at about the same time. They would sometimes say hello and talk briefly when the neighbor came out to get his mail if Tim happened to be coming or going or working in his yard; but the neighbor's house and yard were concealed by a tall hedgerow, and the two might go weeks without seeing one another. Still, they were on good terms.
"Behind the garage - which needs work, I'll admit - you can see two Tuff Sheds. I park my Harley in the one in front. I bolstered the floor with two-by-sixes cause that bike's heavy, you know. Come on in, I'll show you the back." Tim opened the gate, and his neighbor stepped onto Tim Prior's property for the first time ever.
The two men were about the same age, both in their fifties. They were both large men, but they projected very different images. Tim was heavyset with an expanding waistline, long hair and a beard. His arms and torso were covered with tattoos. He looked every bit the part of a Harley rider. His neighbor was taller and broader, but slender and muscular. Everything about him was conservative: his hair, his dress, and his mannerisms. Oddly, it was Tim who was the family man, and the neighbor who had been in trouble with the law. Tim had been divorced for a year and was on the brink of becoming an empty nester whenever the middle child, now pushing thirty, would finally make good on his promise to move out. The neighbor, in spite of his mild demeanor, had been in a few locally notorious fights that had led to minor skirmishes with law enforcement. That was all in the past now, and he truly was a changed man.
"I planted that tree there the year we moved in."
"That's a maple, right? It's grown awfully fast. I planted my pear at about the same time, and it's only about half the circumference. Different species, I guess."
Tim nodded. "Yeah, the house has a new furnace; and the water heater is less than ten years old. I've got HVAC certification, and I installed them myself. You could put in a bathroom upstairs - it's plumbed for it. You could rent out both the upstairs and downstairs."
"The tenants would all have to share the kitchen anyway," the neighbor replied. "What are you asking for it."
"Well, my real estate agent wants to ask three hundred. I was ok with two-twenty. That way I'd pay it off, shoot about twenty to the ex, and get out of here. Too many memories."
The neighbor looked down for a second and noticed for the first time that Tim was wearing a necklace with a cross hanging from it. That's new.
"Yeah everybody thinks they can just drop everything off on Dad. My daughter was supposed to be here yesterday to pick up all the junk she left upstairs. She never showed. My oldest son has a great job, but he's going through bankruptcy; and I'm taking care of his animals." Tim gestured toward two very sedate dogs who had barely lifted their heads when the neighbor came inside the fence. "My ex is in debt, as usual. She took a five-week cruise with her new boyfriend. I'm going to have to split the gains with her; but as long as I get the place paid off, I'm happy. I just want out. Maybe if I got some left over, I'll take a cruise with my girlfriend. I'll put that in my bucket."
"Wow! Five weeks! We're talking over ten grand."
"Yeah, she kept us living paycheck-to-paycheck. She's always wanting to play. It was never, 'can we afford it?' It was always, 'I deserve it.'
"I feel your pain, Tim. I had a girlfriend once who was the same way. I gave her good financial advice, but she refused to take it. She declared bankruptcy and lost her house. It broke my heart, but I wasn't going to bail her out. That ended it for us." The neighbor tried to make eye contact with Tim, but he was looking away. "I'm afraid that three hundred thousand is a little bit out of my range; but I'm sure that you can get it in this market. I hope you do; you deserve it. You've done well, Tim. Then maybe you could throw a few more items in that bucket."
"I don't know. What about you? You ain't getting no younger. What's on your list?"
"I've just completed mine. Something I've wanted to do all of my life. I finally took the plunge, so to speak." The neighbor smiled and looked at Tim's cross. Tim turned toward him and briefly made eye contact.
"Tell me about it."
"Ok, if you've got a couple of minutes."
"I've got nothing but time today. He's not going to list the house 'till next week."
"Well, I joined the church and got baptized - at long last. It's The Chapel over on Forty-third. It's non-denominational; everybody was very accepting. I've wanted to do this for decades; but I couldn't bring myself to show up and sit in a pew by myself - not more than once or twice anyway. Guys like you and me, Tim - rough looking, unattached men over thirty - are welcome in bars and casinos. We're welcome at the gym, and God forbid, in brothels; but we're not really welcome at some churches. You feel the suspicion, the looks: What's he doing here? At least I felt it. Hopefully, you never will. Maybe it was my imagination. I'm not certain, but I sure waited long enough to get myself over that little hurdle."
"I'll describe how it went for me, if you want me too." Tim nodded, and the neighbor smiled warmly and continued with his story.
"Well, first of all, it's more about the journey, the process, than any one inspirational experience - although I definitely had them. Years ago - it sometimes seems like forever; it sometimes seems like it was only yesterday - I asked Christ to become the lord and master of my life. I repented of my sins, and it was a heartfelt repentance. Yet I knew that I would sin again. I had good days and bad; but I can truly say, that in my heart of hearts, I hungered and thirsted after righteousness and truth. The inspiration wasn't always with me, but the ladder was. Let explain that a little more. I don't know where you are right now in your walk with The Lord, but I believe that we are both on the ladder. Jesus said, 'I am the ladder.' I believe that he referred to the ladder that Jacob saw in his vision at Bethel. He saw angels ascending and descending between heaven and earth on a ladder. God was at the top of the ladder, in heaven. I believe this ladder is a symbol of the movement of the individual believer from the human to the divine, the carnal to the spiritual, the temporal to the eternal. You and I are probably on the lower rungs of the ladder; but I can tell you, Tim, that when I do have those moments of inspiration, I look back and can see that I've come a long way. I still have a long journey ahead of me, but I will relish every moment. The night is dark, but starry; the dreamer rests his head on a stone for his pillow, but he will one day rest in the bosom of The Lord."
The neighbor gazed skyward for a moment and gathered his thoughts. He glanced at Timothy, who had his head slightly bowed and his eyes cast downward. His face was expressionless, other than the faint hint of the beginning of a smile. The neighbor spoke again.
"I started going to The Chapel about a year ago. For a few years before then, I had read the Bible daily and prayed daily; but a Christian should not stay alone forever. He needs to find a church home, a place in the community of believers. At first, I felt awkward. I sat alone, and I did not wait around after the services. Then gradually I started getting to know people. I started going to Wednesday evening prayer meetings, and taking part in some of the social activities. Last month, we actually went to a hockey game. I was the old man in the group, but we had a great time. By then, I had met the pastor, and told him that I liked his sermons. It is a large church, and he has a big flock; but I am slowly getting to know him and his assistant pastor. I told him a bit about myself and my circumstances, and I told him that I one day wanted to be baptized. He enrolled me in a class that the church offers which prepares you for baptism. It is a monthlong class, and I did it the month before last. I won't describe it to you in detail, in case you want to do it yourself one day. Basically, you are deepening your faith and committing yourself to the new life that is in front of you. You study scriptural references to baptism, and you learn what purpose it serves in the Christian life."
"I was baptized three Sundays ago after the second service. Many of the parishioners stayed over to witness it. The assistant pastor officiated; he is the one who actually dunked me. He gave me a few brief final instructions and placed his hand on my head. There was light coming from a window over my left shoulder as we stood together in the baptismal; there did not seem to be any artificial light in the room. To my right was the window to the room where the observers stood. Before the immersion, I was not even aware of them. I was a little nervous, but I did not tense up. The assistant minister said my name then baptized me 'in the name of the Father, Son, and the Holy Spirit.' I pinched my nostrils closed with the thumb and forefinger of my right hand and closed my eyes. He pulled me down into the waters of sin and death with both of his hands, held me there for about a two count, and then pulled me back up into the light, a new man in Christ. I felt nothing when I was in the water; it was like that thought-less state you experience when you are not dreaming anymore, but you are not quite awake yet either. When I felt the light, I opened my eyes, and I thought I heard an 'Amen,' then a clap or two. Then a chorus of 'Amens.' A chorus of angels, I thought."
They made eye contact again. "Thank you," Tim said and smiled warmly.
Word count: 1998