The summer Pastor Frank Mueller lost his mind, it rained so hard and so quickly in the town of Ryeford, Illinois that the waters of the marsh spilled into our basements and flooded Gary Avenue from North High all the way to the tracks. The foundation of the Unsatisfied Frog sank several inches into the muck. When the waters receded the city workers had to chase the geese off the road with sticks, and the fire fighters had to drive the trucks over and hose down the pavement. Their rubber boots clung to the mud for an extra second and released finally with a long smack, as though gravity were somehow thicker there, in our neighborhood.
The Sunday of Pastor Frank’s final service was the first clear day in weeks. The sky was a brilliant and terrifying blue, the lawns transformed from late-July brown to an almost phosphorescent green. The service began with the familiar prayers and hymns, the petitions for forgiveness, the congregation rising and sitting with the wheeze and exhale of the organ. The pews were sticky with heat, and the fabric of my skirt was glued to the backs of my thighs where I sat between my parents.
People said later there was something wrong with the light as it slanted through the stained-glass windows that morning, the way it threw trembling triangles of blue and green across the dun carpeting. When Pastor Frank stepped up to begin his sermon, he didn’t speak; his mouth opened and closed again. His eyes widened and his hands gripped the lectern so tightly it rattled against the floor. He stared toward the narthex, transfixed, and people began to whisper to each other, to shift uncomfortably in the pews.
I glanced at Cory Mueller sitting with his brother Jay and their mother in the front row. Cory’s head was tipped up toward his father’s face so the ends of his hair brushed back against his ears. I heard somebody whisper “isn’t anyone going to do anything?” and my mother tugged my arm and hissed “Katie! Sit down!”
Then Pastor Frank released his grip on the lectern, walked briskly past the lit candles, the tray of tiny wine cups and wafers ready for Communion, and took off down the aisle, his vestments trailing behind him. He burst through the sanctuary doors, crossed through the lobby out onto the street, where he headed south down Elm, past the quiet houses and the lush flower beds and the mailboxes with carefully printed family names, where a few neighbors already home from church, passing dishes at brunch or spraying ammonia on the zinnias to keep the rabbits away, glanced up to watch him go by. He ran past Adams Park and the trio of homeless men sitting half-awake in the gazebo, past the Methodist church, Ryeford First Baptist, Egglectic Café, over the tracks, past St. Michael’s and the Dairy Queen, the police station, Walgreens and the DMV.
By the time the congregants of Ryeford Evangelist had roused themselves and stumbled into the lobby, by the time Melodie Mueller had slipped into the office to phone the police, leaving Cory and Jay standing uncertainly at the sanctuary door, Frank was already crossing Roosevelt road, cutting through soccer fields and backyards, headed toward the Willow Square mall. He was halfway to the town line before he began to tire and the police spotted him and picked him up.
According to the report, Frank told the officers he’d looked up from the lectern to see demons at all the windows and the narthex in flames. Nothing could save his people but the Word of God, but when he opened his mouth the word did not come. “I failed them,” he kept repeating. “The door in the sky has opened, and I was judged by the Word and found wanting.”
Cory was nine then. I had just turned ten, an even decade, and was beginning to wonder about some things.
Ryeford was originally a railroad town, a cluster of flat-front buildings thirty-five miles west of Chicago, along the Galena line. Big freighters went thundering by fifteen times a day, shuttling coal and corn and soybean oil and business commuters in and out of the city. At night the sound of their rumbling engines drifted over the marshes and the farms and the wide undeveloped spaces. From there the ministers and the missionaries arrived, and a ring of churches spread out around the tracks like a peculiar, ornate birthmark: Ryeford First Methodist, Ryeford Wesleyan, Ryeford Evangelist, First Baptist, the two St. John’s—Lutheran and Catholic—and to the east, the pristine lawns of Ryeford College, which didn’t allow dancing on campus for almost a hundred and fifty years. Shops and houses filled in around the churches; parks and sidewalks replaced the prairie grasses and the older farms. A growing chorus of bells tolled the hours, until their sound was as familiar as the rumble and moan of the trains. Steadily the town pushed outward, civilization spreading around the train tracks, so that it was possible, by the time I was born, to measure the age of a building in Ryeford simply from its location, the way one can sometimes identify a significant ecological event by examining the rings of a tree.
These days you might drive along the edge of Ryeford and think it looks a lot like any place else—the CinePlex 30 along I-88, the new fitness center with its rows of treadmills, the supermarkets and the take-out restaurants and the Willow Square Mall. Still, you only have to stand in Adams Park on a Sunday morning and listen to the bells going off all around you to know what matters here. People here know what is important; they are waiting to see God. Some call themselves Born Again, but most, like Cory and me, were born just once, carried from the county hospital in little blue or pink hats, our feet kicking, our eyes squinting against the brilliant light.
The fall we entered eighth grade, Cory’s mother divorced his father and sold the house on Erie Avenue. Frank Mueller had cycled in and out of hospitals for almost three years. The doctors couldn’t figure what was wrong. They finally settled on Psychotic Disorder, Not Otherwise Specified, which meant nothing to anybody but was good enough for the VA. They found him a placement in a group home in Lisle, and the For Sale sign on the Mueller place didn’t need to stay up for long. While packing up the study, Cory came across a spiral notebook of Frank’s writings that had fallen between the drawer and the inner cavern of the desk. He slipped it into his backpack, and spent math class poring over the cramped handwriting, making his own notes in his algebra notebook. The word “forsaken.” Book of Daniel. How long Dad in Vietnam?
It was October, 1999. Y2K was all over the papers, and people were beginning to talk about the millennium. There were many in town who believed the year 2000 would at last bring the Rapture and the return of Christ; they began to speak excitedly at neighborhood parties; they formed Bible study groups and abandoned Tuesday-night poker games to arguments about scriptural interpretation. Elisa Ross’s mother started a before-school study group for the eighth grade girls, serving hot chocolate and Strawberry Poptarts while she reviewed each line of Revelation so that we would be ready for the End Times. Even a few of the teachers were getting into it, and the principal dropped the district-wide rule about posting flyers for missions trips and youth groups on the front bulletin board and the gym doors. Before long there were bets among the student body about who would disappear when the moment of the Rapture came, and who would be stuck here, left in the grungy gym-cafeteria, stranded among the clothes and the backpacks and the wadded chewing gum of the saved. The supermarkets were quick to run out of bottled water and saltines.
Cory, it seemed, noticed none of this. All that semester he carried in his pocket a folded-up piece of paper on which his father had transcribed the verses of Psalm 22 in tight, uneven letters.
My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?
Why are you so far from saving me,
so far from the words of my groaning?
We were not even fourteen, but the school rounded us up regularly to lecture us on college admissions and the importance of applying ourselves to standardized tests. Once, sitting beside Cory in the auditorium, I saw him take out the folded psalm and run his finger slowly along the edge of the paper, which had begun to fray along the creases, but he didn’t open it.
According to the entries in the notebook, Cory said, Pastor Frank’s messengers first appeared as hazy patches of light, like a glare off a pane of glass. You are approaching a time of great tribulation, they told him. They warned him about demons and told him to look without squinting. At first he didn’t believe they were real, but he’d served two tours in Vietnam and had seen many things he didn’t believe could be real, but then were, after all. He listened; he took careful notes. He tried to make himself ready.
For years I found it hard to understand how Cory’s faith could go on after his father could not. He still went to church. He prayed daily. He obsessed over his father’s writings, turning the pages carefully. One afternoon the two of us sat on his bedroom floor in the new house and leaned against his bed. The light outside was already starting to fade. Cory opened the notebook and stared at the pages, each dense with a tight, crawling script.
“Listen to this,” Cory said. “Daniel was kept alive to receive the visions. And for so long all this anger that Leo went and not me.” Cory looked at me. “Leo was his best friend in the army. Dad used to talk about him.”
He closed the notebook and slumped against the bed. Our sharp, adolescent shoulders pressed into each other, and I held myself still. Those days desire was a strange and wandering energy in me that had not yet settled in the appropriate spaces. Just the promise of touch could fill me with longing. I’d grown up hearing so much about the soul, but I really didn’t know what that was. Skin, blood, feet, fingernails, eyelashes—these I understood.
Cory’s neck smelled like the fabric softener his mother used on the laundry. I was constantly wanting to push the hair out of his eyes. He turned and looked at me, and then he set the notebook beside him on the floor.
We didn’t kiss then, not for a long time. For both of us, I think, love was some kind of salvation, and neither of us had done enough to earn it.
Pastor Frank was old for a father. He’d worked at a veterans’ counseling center in Chicago for almost ten years before the synod assigned him to Ryeford, and his marriage to Melodie had been a bit of scandal at first, people said; she was so much younger. But his rousing sermons, his booming voice and his funny stoop mowing the Muellers’ lawn on Wednesdays, when there was little work at the church, were soon as much a part of Ryeford as anything else. His hair was graying around the edges and his voice was sometimes hoarse, but to me and my friends he was just like all the other fathers—except on Sundays, when he was our access to God.
The services were always long and hot, but I loved the music of the language, the way even the throwaway sentences about the number of sons in a family or goats owed in a debt could be read with grandiose authority and pitch. Each Sunday I sat swinging my feet in the pew and listened as Pastor Frank, bathed in the fragmented multicolored light of the stained glass windows, sounded the bewildering words up toward the rafters.
Some of it I understood. In the Beginning was the Word, and the Word was God. I imagined a word, one never spoken before or since, hovering in darkness like a secret about to be told, the thing on which everything else depended. Pastor Frank always left a long pause after this verse, let the final syllables fade out, and the congregation would prick their ears, listening, waiting, as though we might hear that word right then, and understand.
Everyone in Ryeford, it seemed, had adopted this fervency of speech, so that even if you never went in the churches you couldn’t avoid that grandiose pitch. Anticipation percolated like something in the water. Sundays, after the service, I’d ride my bike around the neighborhood, up past the high school and the Unsatisfied Frog, Ryeford’s only bar, to the cornfield at the edge of the of our street where for years you could watch the sun go down, the horizon dark and certain as the edge of the world. They built a subdivision there later, and a strip mall with a dry cleaner’s and a Chinese take-out place that turned on its neon lights long before the sky got dark.
There is some unhappiness in Ryeford, I will tell you that, as there is unhappiness in any place where the people fill their days waiting for an epiphany. Among the faces of the adults you might see a slight darkening around the eyes, a disappointment that shows in lines around the mouth. But their children are constantly turning up their faces as sunflowers might, blank and expectant, waiting for the moment that will be the agent of change.
As Frank’s messengers came more often, Cory read, their voices spoke with increasing clarity and volume, buried in an intense light that pressed on Frank’s eyes. But he would not squint. He researched prophetic scholarship, environmental policy, quantum physics. His notes were cramped with quotations and random facts, some starred or underlined or scrawled multiple times across the page. It took Cory months to sift through it all. He that has an ear, let him hear what the Spirit saith unto the churches; To him that overcometh will I give to eat of the tree of life, which is in the midst of the paradise of God.
Sometime in March, Cory guessed—by then his father had abandoned dating his entries—the voices grew more specific; they spoke of a door that would open in heaven, and a voice like a trumpet that would speak alongside him. On those pages, Frank wrote over and over a phrase which he attributed to the voices but which Cory found verbatim in Revelation Chapter Four, where John describes the trumpet-voice calling. Come up hither, and I will show you things which must be hereafter.
By Thanksgiving break, Cory had read the books of Daniel and Revelation three or four times each. His eyes had reddened and the skin beneath them had darkened prematurely. His mother took him to the doctor, the family practitioner who’d known him for years, but he only talked to Cory about vitamins and told him to get more sleep.
Meanwhile, New Year’s preparations were already in full swing. The people of Ryeford planned cocktail parties and substance-free dances for the teenagers; some stockpiled bottled water and canned soup, while others handed out pamphlets citing Bible prophecy and historical timelines they’d printed off the internet. Cory found one of these pamphlets on the floor of the Jewel-Osco pharmacy, and we laughed over the terrible grammar, the ubiquitous exclamation marks. The time draws near! Repent! Repent! And cast your soul up to Jesus!
That was the first Thanksgiving the Muellers spent in their new house. Frank, though he was invited, did not show up. I spent the holiday at home with my parents, chopping vegetables in the kitchen while my mother struggled with a Jell-o mold.
She glanced at me and forced a laugh. “I can cook a gourmet meal but I can’t do this God damn—”
She shook the mold and a quarter of the Jell-O fell out into the sink. Her head dropped to her chest and she took two breaths, then let the mold drop into the sink.
“We could’ve just had it kind of mushed up,” I said.
My mother turned, her eyes a little red, and blinked at me. “Tell Dad it’s ready?” she said.
In the family room my father sat still, his eyes on the television, his gin and tonic sweating in his right hand.
“Dad,” I said.
He didn’t move. “Yes.”
A pause. “Dad.”
That night the first snow came, big, feathery flakes that caught on the air pockets and glittered in the streetlights. My father and I went for a walk through the neighborhood, saying little, our breath visible in the cold. Occasionally he’d point to the snow swirling in somebody’s porch lights and say, “Look.”
Later, after I was back in my room and had set out my outfit for the morning, I lay in bed and listened to the trains. As a little kid I used to feel a strange comfort in the distant thrumming of the engines, the rattle of wheels, the constantly repeating bass line that was once all I really needed for faith. Your happiness is elsewhere, that sound said now. And you will leave this place, and your every act will be an act of atonement, and your every breath will deem you worthy of a great and infinite love.
Every year, the Jefferson Middle School music department held a massive concert in the gym, cramming the band, choir and orchestra onto the basketball court and the parents into the stifling heights of the bleachers. The program was always the same, save an occasional Hannakuh song thrown in when some errant PTA member threatened to call the ACLU, and it always began with a prayer. I wasn’t in the band or the orchestra, but Mr. Williams, the music director, sometimes asked me to play the piano for the choir, and that night I’d been enlisted to add a synthesized organ to “Angels We Have Heard On High.”
"He probably wants to cover up the singers,” Cory muttered to me once after practice. Several of the tenors that year were suffering from occasional voice cracks, and the straining intervals of that song were punctuated with hiccups and chirps. Cory played the tenor sax, an instrument he’d selected in fifth grade because of his father’s and his shared love of Coltrane. Every now and then I’d catch one of his low, smooth tones floating out from the edge of the wavering trumpets and the shrieking clarinets.
Maybe it was because that was the first Christmas Frank Mueller was stable on his meds, or because he’d been so encouraging of Cory that first spring he carted the enormous rented sax home from school and back, but I was certain he would show up at the concert. I don’t know why. Cory didn’t say anything about it. Maybe I just wanted to see him.
The Christmas program that year lasted almost three hours. The air heated inside the gym and rose in waves toward the ceiling, the long notes wavering out of tune. From the piano bench in back I scanned the faces in the bleachers. My parents were there, droop-eyed and determined. Frank Mueller was not. On the final chorus, after I’d landed hard on the chords and the scratchy organ sound had filled the speakers, I glanced up toward the side door, thinking I might see him standing there, closing his eyes with the sound or scanning the gym for his son. But the door was empty.
The Millennium arrived, and nothing happened. People in Ryeford went to their parties and wine tastings and prayer circles, but after midnight the world went on as usual, save an almost imperceptible shift in the air as the entire town held its breath for a second, waiting, hoping, then let it out again.
Cory and I spent the night at the movies, slipping from theater to theater in the massive 40-screen complex, not watching anything from the start. During an action sequence of the latest Bond movie, he opened the backpack he carried with him at all times and pulled out a small meal of fruit Mentos and two Cherry Cokes. I glanced in the backpack and even the dark I saw what was missing.
“Where’s the notebook?” I said. Machine guns flared on the screen.
“You know what I mean.”
Cory shrugged. “I’m just sick of it.” He turned back to the screen, where Pierce Brosnan’s face hovered, enormous and slick with sweat and dirt.
At the end of the night, we stood outside by the pay phones, waiting for Jay to pick us up. I looked at Cory. His awkward frame had lengthened that winter into its adult proportions. He was handsome, and the girls in our class had started to notice. “So you’re just done with it, then?” I said. “All that research you did?”
“He’s sick,” Cory said. “I mean, that’s it.”
A gust of wind pushed us back against the building. It was two o’clock in the morning, and the parking lot was empty. The lights buzzed. Pools of light fell in regular intervals on the empty parking spots, on the cleanly painted lines.
When Jay showed up he was slightly buzzed, and he drove slowly, watching for cops. Cory and I sat in the back, huddled close to catch the heat blasting between the front seats. The streets were empty. The Fitness Center sat dark and vacant along the road, the outline of the treadmills and stationary bikes visible through the glass. Cory turned and looked at me. I wanted to say something, but my throat was locked. His hand came up and hesitated, bouncing a little with the movement of the car. He touched a piece of my hair. His fingers grazed lightly across my skin. I closed my eyes. His fingers moved across my forehead, down the bridge of my nose, across my lips, catching on the jagged chapped skin there. Timidly he traced my cheeks and stopped on my eyes, where the pads of his fingers rested lightly on the lids, barely touching the lashes. His fingers were cool and my eyes moved a little against their pressure. A car swished by outside, throwing its headlights over us, and everything brightened for a second, then went dark again.
My parents were still up when I got home. I sat on the couch while my father downed whiskey sours and watched the replay of fireworks going off all over the world, the new age shifting each hour to someplace else.
People in Ryeford talk so often about the moment they found God—”I was there, in the supermarket, staring at the bottles of ketchup, and the spirit just hit me—” that I think it’s easy to assume the loss of faith happens just as suddenly, in a single moment. Usually, though, I think it’s more gradual, and doesn’t correspond to anything at all.
Later, after Cory had dropped out of high school and quit going to church, and refused to enter a G.E.D. program or sign up for any of the standardized tests, people looked at each other and said “his father, that day—you remember.” It sounded right. I said it, too.
My own faith, it turned out, had trickled away long before then, but the language of it remained. It was a long time before I noticed it missing, and began to cast back, obediently, for the moment it disappeared: the one image or event that could carry the loss.
By February, people in Ryeford were used to the idea of the new year; even the computers had adjusted to all those zeros without a glitch. People dropped their apocalyptic tones, though a sense of vague embarrassment remained. Cory grew quiet and sullen in class and his jokes were laced with a new anger.
Still, when I made the track team early that spring, he came to my meets; he even convinced Jay to drive him down to Champaign for the state finals, where I placed second in the 400 and the 800 meters and anchored the 1600-meter relay.
I was a rush of endorphins and adrenaline, and I loved the way the world slowed at those high speeds, the prickling of skin and peculiar slants of light suddenly noticeable, real. That was in May, and the dense, humid air of summer was already settling over the Midwest, collecting in the marsh, making it harder to breathe.
At eighth grade graduation we all did our best to look excited. That was the spring I knew I was going to leave Ryeford, and I began cultivating the skills I would need to do this, the requisite intelligence and speed. I told my friends I was going to go to college out east, somewhere far, and afterwards travel to Europe, Asia, Africa. Maybe I really believed it. It’s hard to know now.
Summer came, and Cory and I spent a long time hanging around the pool and the park. Once he rode my bike down the grass-covered sledding hill, the tallest point in Ryeford, whooping as the front wheel wobbled and bounced over divots and holes. In August, at a friend’s birthday party, we played soccer in the back field of Holy Cross Lutheran church, just the two of us, the sky going dark, gnats and mosquitoes darting at our calves, the ball ricocheting between our feet. We were breathing hard, our heads bent forward. Just as the ball was about to break loose Cory flung his arms around my waist and tackled me to the ground. We landed hard and I was laughing, the dry grass scratching my thighs. Cory was laughing too, a soundless laugh, all air. His face was inches from mine. We looked at each other. The air was almost too humid to breathe. Across the street, the party was blasting some song we probably knew, but all we could hear was the bass, a low constant trembling in the gut. A second went by in which a terrible sadness reared in me from one of those uncharted places, a quick clenching of the exultant heart that knows too early it’s really just muscle. The taste of it was still there when Cory kissed me.
I left Ryeford not long after that, as I knew I would. I’d come to have faith in the promise of other places; I still believed meaning would come into my life the way it rose from a sound, from a word. The night before I left, Cory picked me up in his brother’s old truck, and we drove through the empty town, the stoplights already flashing yellow over the streets. The radio on the truck was broken, so there was only the sound of the engine and the occasional crunch of gravel under the tires. We didn’t say much. The stained glass windows were dark, the storefronts closed up tight. I kept reminding myself that you didn’t feel homesick for a place you didn’t belong.
Finally we drove up Gary and parked along the edge of the marsh. It had been a hot day, and humid, but the night air was starting to cool, and there was a mist rising out of the marsh, weird and ghostly in the truck’s headlights. I looked at Cory. The truck’s engine rattled. He turned off the ignition but left the headlights on. “Aren’t you going to say anything?” I said finally.
His eyes followed the mist as it twisted and coiled, lifted toward the cool air by imperceptible currents.
“It’s something,” he said.