Ashlyn forced a smile and glanced at the clock. Her current customer had wandered in, dirty, ordered a coffee, and proceeded to relate his life story–for the last forty-five minutes. So when the bell tied to the glass door rang, Ashlyn welcomed the distraction. It was one of her regulars, Pastor Wendell. “Your normal?”
“That’ll work.” He sat on the stool, removed a little, as was his way.
She excused herself from the talkative stranger and began working on the pastor’s drink. “I saw you yesterday on my way here.”
“You were in that alley by the movie theater, just standing there, looking at the wall.”
He smiled slightly. “Just a little preoccupied, that’s all.”
She handed him his latte. He paid and left her alone with the stranger, who rambled on.
When Ashlyn walked past the alley on the way to work a few days later, she saw Pastor Wendell again. He stood near the brick wall, head bowed. He seemed to be praying, and he trembled slightly. She’d heard enough strange stories in her time as a barista to wonder if Pastor Wendell might not be a little off. It seemed most people were, nowadays. Or maybe she just attracted the crazies.
She was curious, though, so on the way home Ashlyn stepped into the alley. It was just a short, brick-walled passage, but it felt dark and grungy, as if it belonged in a big city and not on Main Street, USA. There were the usual symbols and embellished signatures in bold spray paint. Moving to where she had seen Pastor Wendell, she found two words, red and rough, splashed without the artistry of the other graffiti.
The words gave her pause, and she reentered the early spring evening, pensive.
The third time she saw Pastor Wendell standing in the alley, she almost went up to him. Pastor Wendell’s lips moved, and he stood transfixed, eyes closed. She went occasionally to church; the stuffy sanctuary made her feel as if she were sitting in a funeral parlor. This was different. This, she thought, was the quiet holiness of a man on his knees in a dark room. She backed out of the alley and continued on.
She considered asking him about it when he came into the coffee shop a half-hour later, but she wasn’t sure she wanted an answer. She listened to enough bizarre, long-winded stories as it was.
Still, the question remained. What drew the Pastor to this alley, as if he were a Jew sticking prayers in the cracks of the Wailing Wall?
When the pastor turned into the alley cautiously, almost reluctantly, the next day, he did not see her in the early morning shadows. When he did, he just looked at her, startled.
“Of course you’ve seen me,” he muttered.
“Who wrote it? Did you?”
He shook his head. “I don’t know who did it.”
She looked around furtively. “I wasn’t going to ask, but I can’t get it out of my head.”
He laughed. “Neither can I.”
“Are you all right? I mean, why do you come here? You can pray in your church, can’t you?”
“Church is too safe,” he said quietly. He looked at her. “Do you know what I mean when I say the Fall of Man?”
“Adam and Eve ate an apple or something.”
“The world was perfect. Imagine a picture in glass, a beautiful, indescribable scene. Imagine it shattering. That’s the Fall. We pick up this piece. It cuts our hand. We step here, it cuts our foot. The more we try to put it back together, the bloodier we get.”
He looked at the words on the wall. “I don’t know who wrote them. Anyone could have. That’s the point. The cross is not just to save people from hell. It’s deeper than that.”
He stepped forward and ran his hands along the words in red–I suffer.
“‘By his wounds, we are healed.’ If I can suffer with him, if only here, if only by praying for all the hurt I’ve seen, I can play a part in that healing. Does that make sense?”
When Ashlyn opened the coffee shop fifteen minutes later, the dirty stranger waited. She smiled at him and offered him a cup of coffee.
Originally published in the March 2016 edition of the 4County Mall