At the stony intersection of Flower and Cook Drive lies 100 meters of holy ground. The soil itself is not holy – the red clay of the region has no specific favorability with any deity – but the three buildings facing one another are considered holy by 10%, 30% and 60% of the town’s population, respectively.
Rabbi Himmel, his balding crown covered by a white kipa, stands in the past-noon sunlight outside thick glass doors. The synagogue is on the West corner of Flower and Cook Drive, and Rabbi Himmel is warm in his black suit. He had delivered a particularly impassioned sermon regarding Hachnasat Orchim – of welcoming the stranger – with a lively retelling of Abraham and the idol worshipper. Or so he thinks at least, rocking back and forth while trying not to play with the strings of his tallit.
“For we were strangers in the land of Egypt,” he mutters in his shofar-boom of a voice, staring at the tiered-brick structure on the East corner of Flower and Cook Drive.
Reverend Simon is shepherding a Saturday Bible class into the guilty world, satisfied that each head that files past (for that week at least) will remember that John 11:35 – “Jesus wept” – was not said in disappointment, but in compassion. He wonders if he’ll get a rather-too-friendly visit from Magistrate Collins in the evening, who happened yesterday to misuse the phrase in berating little Tim Robins, a budding chocolate thief.
As the last student scurries out, Reverend Simon looks across the street to the North corner of Flower and Cook Drive. There stands the wooden chapel of Father Matthew – who is busily waving to him in the summer brightness.
Reverend Simon nods, shuts the church doors against the heat and walks across the cobblestone roundabout that separates the temple, church and chapel.
His leather shoes clip-clop their way to the final corner of Flower and Cook Drive, the South corner. Reverend Simon wanders off holy land and into the cease-fire of Town Atheist Robert Gumms’ lamp-lit living room.
Rabbi Himmel is already at the card table, his baritone stirring the dust up into the filtered light.
“So I said to him, Ephraim – Robert you know how he can talk – Ephraim, in one word how was Israel? And he nods and says, ‘Good.’” The rabbi claps his hands together as Robert Gumms fills a shaker glass with sun tea. “And so I said, ‘wonderful!’ In two words then Ephraim, how was Israel?” Rabbi Himmel smooths his hair, curling in the summer humidity, and begins laughing. “And I knew he would say it! That schlemiel shakes his old head and says, ‘Not good.’”
The rabbi flings out his hands wide, soft palms up – nearly knocking Father Matthew as he places his wafer-thin black-clad form at the table. Robert Gumms pours a second glass of sun tea.
Father Matthew raises his glass: “And you will know the good trees by their good fruits,” he says, taking a sip while the ice clicks against his dentures.
“Good tree my ass,” Robert Gumms grumbles, shuffling to get a plate of biscuits. “You saw what those kids did to my apple tree – rolls of paper all over it this morning.” He smirks out the window at the white Kleenex-brand adornments to his yard. “I’ve a mind to collect it all up and use it. Probably five dollars worth out there!”
“Vandalism,” young Reverend Simon says, shaking his head while he sits down. “The first taste of immorality for youth. I’ll work it into my sermon tomorrow.” He nods his head decisively, accepting a glass of tea from Robert Gumms’ full hands.
“Don’t you go telling them God said not to play with my apple tree,” Robert Gumms puts the biscuits in the middle of the holy men and sits. “You tell them Robert Gumms says don’t you play with my apple tree.”
Reverend Simon nods seriously while Father Matthew smiles into his tea.
“And you tell them,” Robert Gumms continues, warming to his subject, “that I got something God doesn’t – a shotgun!”
Rabbi Himmel is the first to laugh into the afternoon silence, followed shortly by the father and reverend.
Robert Gumms picks up a biscuit and bites into it hard – despite his age and disposition, his gums have managed to maintain every last tooth.
“You laugh, because you haven’t heard the news,” he says, chewing the biscuit slowly. The other three quiet down. Robert Gumms – realizing the biscuit is rather stale – makes them wait. An icecube pops in Reverend Simon’s glass, then settles.
“Becky Williams…” Robert Gumms begins, watching Father Matthew sit up at his parishioner’s name, “And Michael Rosen…” a similar change in posture from Rabbi Himmel. But before another word can escape Robert Gumms’ impeccable gums, both men are speaking.
“You can’t believe...”
“His mother told me…”
Robert Gumms smiles while the holy men huff into a lamp-lit silence. He wipes the crumbs from his trousers into his veined hand, and brushes them onto the biscuit plate. Then he leans forward and delivers his closing line: “Becky Williams and Michael Rosen are engaged.”
Reverend Simon, suddenly ruing his seat choice in-between the rabbi and the father, looks nervously to his left, then nervously to his right. His chin settles straight forward, toward Robert Gumms.
Father Matthew’s jaw is pushing forward and back, forward and back – sinful words clearly filling it and being pulled in to simmer again. Rabbi Himmel shakes his head slowly. He pulls up his kipa, runs his puffy hand across his balding crown, and places it down again.
“I will not marry them.”
“By Jesus I will not either!”
Reverend Simon crosses his hands in his lap and becomes very interested in their composition.
Robert Gumms is smiling a pink smile across the biscuits. “Why Rabbi Himmel, Father Matthew – you won’t have to!”
“They’ve eloped?” Reverend Simon gasps.
“No son,” Robert Gumms says. “So much better. They’ve asked me to perform their marriage.”
The table erupts.
“You’re not allowed!”
“A non-religious ceremony?”
“I thought those things were outlawed!”
“These modern ideas!”
Robert Gumms laughs, sipping his sun tea. He stands as the three holy men stare at one another. The summer heat has turned night-damp and soupy. Robert Gumms pulls back his lace curtain. Outside, children are playing with the season’s fireflies.
Reverend Simon clears his throat, not just to unstick a crumb of stale biscuit. “Well… I hate to rush a thing, but don’t you have an evening service Father Matthew?”
Father Matthew taps his nails on the table, looking coldly at Robert Gumms. “Mmm, 8 o’clock,” he says, the words whistling through his teeth. “I haven’t nearly written the sermon.”
Reverend Simon casts a hopeful look at Rabbi Himmel. “Better get the Rummy board then, if we don’t want to quit half-way.”
Rabbi Himmel shifts in his seat, straightening his kipa. In the quiet, the children’s shrieks at catching a bug can be heard. The rabbi coughs into his sleeve. “I suppose we don’t want Mr. Gumms here to plotz if, heaven forbid, we have to stop half-way,” Rabbi Himmel grumbles.
Robert Gumms drops the curtain. “Well I’ve a right to!” he says, shuffling to the cupboard. “Fine for you all to use up your time ‘til kingdom come. I’m just waitin to die so you can fight over who buries me.”
Reverend Simon nearly bursts. “You mean you’re making one of us bury you?”
Rabbi Himmel clears the biscuits to make room on the table. “No fighting over that, certainly Father…”
“No, I insist Rabbi…”
“Well then it’ll have to be Reverend…”
Robert Gumms laughs as the Rummy board is spread. The game begins.
About the Author: After growing up in a story-packed beach town in Los Angeles, Julie A Hirsch now lives in Melbourne, Australia, where she works in the nonprofit sector while completing a fiction manuscript. You can follow her here.