The Last Sin Eater
The boy and girl were laid out at the mortuary a week after Jamil’s funeral. For those who considered the thickness of hair currency, the children were rich. The townspeople, to observe the fear that devils could appear to buckle the children’s crowns, guarded the children, danced to distract themselves. Geoff, not having yet heard about the children, so not having yet been summoned to them, left his echoing home and went to the town’s park to wonder at the old Welsh men. They surfed the trails in loafers and clutched purses of cards and wooden books of chess. They were tranquil for people in want of partners. The sun strutted in and out like a busy party host, and in between visits, the wind fanned the grass.
Geoff thought Jamil had been next door to beautiful — and perfect for it. Geoff said, “My close enough,” not caring how Jamil’s left eye drooped — because Jamil spoke about the future in the present tense like a poet might. Before Jamil, there was always Geoff’s temptation to have distant men he met online stay just long enough for one breakfast. After Jamil, after the wake, and after everyone had gone home, there were only thoughts of The Reverend Clarence Dunlop to appease. Geoff packed up the mourning leftovers as individual meals and carried them to the pantry at St. Agnes.
In the park, Reverend Dunlop and his wet mustache sat down on the other end of Geoff’s bench. Dunlop wiped his brow and held his checked, monogrammed kerchief out to Geoff. Not taking it, Geoff ran his palm down the back of his head and found his shirt’s tag out.
“Despite who you two were, if it helps, the erotic junk of life still interests me,” Dunlop said as he wadded up the cloth.
“Jamil spent a time last year asking me if my work was father-taught — and, if so, how,” Geoff said.
“What did you tell him?”
“’That at some point it becomes the only way we tell ourselves why we do what we do,” Geoff said.
“Other people miss him too,” Dunlop said. “People liked you two together.”
“He was always a surprise to me — but he settled you,” Dunlop said.
“Do you think you put up with me because there is no one else left who does what I do?” Geoff said.
“I remember your father and snippets of your grandfather,” Dunlop said. “They knew if we have gifts, no matter who we are, we give them to people—regardless of the ability of the person receiving the gift to appreciate. Handing an infant Walden doesn’t change Walden.”
“I must give to rich people?”
“Yes,” Dunlop said.
“To poor people?”
“Certainly,” Dunlop said.
“From my perspective that would mean people poorer than me, and I’m not sure I’ve met those people.”
“Sometimes they live in houses like the one we provide you,” Dunlop said. “Other times, they have children or … partners, so they don’t care as much about money.”
Geoff stood and threw a two-fingered salute at Dunlop. As Geoff stepped away, Dunlop said, “There were two deaths today. Earlier.”
Geoff turned back and said, “Why didn’t you say something right away?”
“What would we do without you?” Dunlop said.
“Who were they?”
“The Argall children,” Dunlop said. “Just starting second and third grade.”
During Jamil, a year into living together, Jamil asked what Geoff, in the event of a child, would prefer to be called.
“Not ‘Father,’” Geoff said. “Nothing that sounds so religious.”
“So you do think about having a child,” Jamil said.
“Let me correct you,” Geoff said as he grabbed a pen and napkin. He wrote, “I think about you, one day, holding our children.”
The mortuary was the oldest building in the town. It had no inscriptions or helpful stones or plaques. It looked like a medieval bakery, and Geoff wished he’d eaten something, oatmeal even, in the past day. He dismissed the townspeople, and stood over the thin parts of the story before him, as clear and empty as the children’s skin. But his job didn’t involve knowing how a body came to need him; that was for the police, the judge, the council. He repeated the whisper he’d been given that children sometimes fall from jungle gyms.
He didn’t start his duties, though. Instead, he lifted a strand of hair from the girl’s face and asked her what she would have called him if he’d been her father. In the silence, he walked around the three-foot-high table to the boy. “And you?” he said. “If you had been ours?”
He lowered himself so his ear was the space of a folded moth from the boy’s slack mouth, but the only words were his: “Papa, perhaps?”
A month before Jamil’s death, Jamil and Geoff sat in the town’s modest library. It shared a building with all parts of town administration and was open every day, though the number of patrons who visited depended on the amount of free coffee in the lobby. Geoff chose the ceramic mugs, and they took a two-person table set at a window.
“When we discuss adopting a child, you tell me I won’t have time for art,” Jamil said as he peeled the top from a miniature bucket of creamer.
Managing only a short split in a lean napkin, Geoff wrote, “I love when you really want something,” and slid it to Jamil.
“I’m going to sound like Dunlop here,” Jamil said. “Hunger is great, but it consumes you if you don’t eat something eventually.”
“I like you the way you are, and without your art, I think you might come to resent me,” Geoff said.
“But why won’t I have time?”
“You’d have to get a paying job,” Geoff said. “Or we would pass around hunger pangs like an unwanted gift. One of us would always be tending it.”
The door to the quiet room swung open, and Dunlop padded in. “The parents are wondering if everything has been done,” he said.
Geoff stepped back from the table and said, through burgeoning tears, “Jamil wanted a child. So much.”
Dunlop stepped close enough to touch Geoff, but Geoff stepped away around the children, so the men faced off across the bodies. “I didn’t do any of this for him last week,” Geoff said.
“He asked that you not. It wasn’t that it was you, though. He didn’t believe in this. I don’t have to tell you that.”
“But you say it doesn’t matter how much someone believes. We do our jobs,” Geoff said.
“We follow people’s requests,” Dunlop said as he reached to brush a speck of something that had landed on the boy’s cheek — but hesitated and pulled back.
Geoff wiped his nose with his sleeve and snorted twice. “Go out and I’ll finish,” he said. “Go.”
As Dunlop eased the door shut, Geoff crossed to the bread cupboard and slid the shiny door to the left. Inside were wrapped slices, and he took two out.
Just as Jamil arrived, Geoff logged out of the website they messaged through. After the last man’s unexpected rambling about conspiracy theories and their connection to the decadence of youth today, Geoff was eager for this newer stranger, Jamil. They had chatted for nine days, every day, about Rothko or Chopin, Muir or Forester, though threads into Sondheim had gone nowhere. Questions back an -forth about the worth of Bauhaus and what would have happened if the Nazis hadn’t surged had led Geoff to message Jamil, only Jamil.
They sat for tea, and Jamil seemed grateful. His attire: dress clothes relaxed from decades of someone else’s use. He left an odor of almonds in the places he settled: first in the doorway, where Geoff caught the scent as he shut the door, and next in his chair in the breakfast nook, which Geoff lingered over before clearing the cups and saucers when Jamil had excused himself for the restroom.
Jamil returned with his long, dark hair slicked back. With the frame of hair gone, the late thirties appeared in his face, and Geoff smiled away his worry that Jamil might actually be younger than he’d written. “I like that we’re the same age,” Geoff said, believing their online answers more.
“I think you’re three years ahead of me,” Jamil said with a smile equal to Geoff’s. “And I hope we may get together again. For now, just tell me where the gas station is in town, and I’ll be on my way. We can chat tomorrow.”
“The gas station is closed till the morning,” Geoff said. “But is that so bad?”
Jamil took a napkin from the plain wooden holder on the breakfast table. He drew a pen from an inner coat pocket and handed Geoff the items. “Write down what you want to tell me but think it would be too early or too unacceptable to admit.”
“Oh-K,” Geoff said. Jamil paged through a rugose coffee table book about the national parks while Geoff pressed the napkin against the wall and wrote, “I just want to hold you.”
Geoff folded the napkin twice, set it back against the wall, and crushed the creases flat with swipes of his thumb. He turned back to Jamil and opened his mouth to qualify what he wrote, but Jamil looked up and shook his head.
Jamil took the note, but he didn’t unfold it. He placed it and the pen in his pocket. “How about we make up the couch for me? That is, after we snuggle on said couch for a little, if that’s OK.”
Geoff and Dunlop crossed back through the park. “It’s lovely we have a park like this,” Dunlop said.
Geoff nodded and, as a child might, matched his steps to Dunlop’s. Right feet stepped together, left feet landed together. It was something Jamil would have done, though he could have done it for longer before the other person noticed. “What are you doing?” Dunlop said.
“Why are you walking me home?” Geoff said.
Dunlop paused, but Geoff maintained his awkward gait. “I have news for you,” Dunlop said.
Geoff switched to walking backward. He leaned his head forward and turned an ear to Dunlop. “You better say it while I can still hear,” Geoff said.
“It’s from Jamil,” Dunlop said. He retrieved his cloth and wiped his brow.
“You’ve kept something from me?” Geoff said and rushed Dunlop. He surprised them both when they knocked together and fell to the path. Geoff tried to maintain his fists, but his hands melted into uselessness. He rolled off of Dunlop, and the two men, side-by-side on their backs, breathed like surfacing free-divers.
“You shit,” Dunlop said. “He gave me something for you before he died, but he said not to tell you ’til you returned to work.”
Geoff rocked himself away from Dunlop and managed to come to rest on his side. He could see a pond in the distance, but he couldn’t remember having been to it.
“He didn’t want you to know he’d gotten a paying job. He didn’t tell me why, but he said it’d happened just days after one of your visits to the library,” Dunlop said.
Geoff pushed himself up to a hunched-over sitting position and watched a woman snap open a blanket next to the pond.
Dunlop pressed his hands into the walk, but his arms quivered; he remained flat. “And the job has already paid, so the money is yours. He sold his paintings to a restaurateur who has eight places throughout the wider area. All of his paintings, Jamil told me. He said it would have been enough, though he didn’t say for what. Anyway, it’s yours.”
Geoff pushed himself into a child’s likeness of a cat. After a few moments there, he pressed down on his left thigh and forced himself to stand. “I’m not that old,” he said. “That shouldn’t have been such a problem.”
He looked down on Dunlop. “I don’t know if I can get you up,” he said, but he held to a tree that was just out of Dunlop’s reach, and Dunlop used him as a ladder.
The two began walking the same direction again, but after a few paces, Geoff put his hand on Dunlop’s shoulder and aimed them for the unvisited pond. There were more people sitting around it now, a mix of ages he’d never seen in the park. The tight trees let enough light through to show everyone where to go but kept the rays from driving into skin.
The white door with a thin inset window settles shut, and Geoff tries to place that day’s napkin in Jamil’s hand. A new pain has been named each day of the last two weeks, listed by doctors and nurses on clipboards, so Geoff doesn’t ask about today’s ripping of air from the stomach. Geoff finishes going through the get-well cards, and he leans in to press the napkin back to Jamil’s hand, but it falls to the bed again. Jamil opens his eyes, but he squints against the air’s pixelating white. Almost not there, but he breathes enough back that Geoff feels the breeze of heat on his cheek. Jamil settles back into his pillow, but seconds later, the ripping again. Geoff rubs each of Jamil’s fingers, counts to ten on each stop. As the numbers copy themselves, he becomes a scene of fractal sobbing. Each cry has tendrils of reasons, and each reason subsists on memory. Geoff lets Jamil take over soothing duty, and, with his eyes, Jamil curls Geoff into an armless embrace, teaches Geoff to wrap his body upon itself as a dog reduces itself. Though, also as a dog does, to touch the upper back to the one you love.
Geoff shakes ’til both are silent, one taken by sleep.
Todd Wellman writes adult and middle-grade novels and short stories; and children’s picture books. For an independent bookstore, he schedules touring authors to meet with schools. He and his partner sometimes pretend to have pets…alas, they’re still practicing with plants. Todd is the former fiction editor for cream city review. Selected by Dawnie Walton.
Image copyright Satpreet Kahlon.