As we slowed down near the church to make the turn toward Lincoln Drive, Liza became still and her eyes became fixed upon a tall, elderly man completely dressed in black who was exiting the church behind the rest of the small congregation. He appeared to be looking directly at her as he lifted his dark fedora towards us as a gesture of greeting.
"Did you see that guy?” I asked. "He looks like someone out of the silent film era from the 1920's!"
"Why, because he's older, and dressed completely in black?" Maria answered back, semi-sarcastically.
"Well, yeah I guess, he just looks...I don't know....kind of....."
"Don't you think it's a little early to be making preconceived notions about the people already? But now that you mention it, they were all dressed in black...I guess they were having a funeral."
"Yeah, I guess you could be right, I stated, about both things."
As I pulled our SUV onto the winding gravel driveway and put the vehicle in park, I abruptly leaned across the center console and placed a gentle kiss on my wife's cheek.
"What was that for hun?" Maria asked, while trying to hold back a laugh.
I folded my arms in a knot and pretended as if I was going to pull away. "Oh, am I that funny?"
"No, it's just something you would do when we were dating, and I kinda miss it."
"I'm sorry," I said. "I know that at times I'm not the most affectionate person in the world and sometimes I think I don't show you just how much you mean to me. I want this to be a new chapter for so many different things, you know?"
"Yes, I do, and I have a good feeling about this. I prayed that God would lead us in the right direction, and here we are.”
As she took my hand and placed it in hers, I felt two small feet begin to kick the back of my driver's seat and we knew that our daughter was saying it was time to get out. I put Liza down onto the near overgrown lawn and she immediately began to run with animated wild abandonment. Her light brown curls bounced with each step as her chocolate colored eyes peered heavenward. I imagined her laughing and playing with other children her own age and realized that she would never have that enjoyment.
"God, why her? Why our daughter"? I whispered the question while holding back tears.
My wife wrapped her arms tightly around my shoulders as a silent confirmation that she shared my awareness of the present reality. “One day she really will run free and with no limitations." She turned toward our daughter briefly and then stared deeply into my eyes, trying to relay the hope I had lost sight of. I nodded in agreement while biting my lower lip.
But why not now? was my silent reply. As usual, I had questions that no one could answer, or at least explain with some type of rhyme or reason.
My wife took my hand and we began to walk toward the house. It was an incredibly well-maintained older cape cod and it came at a reasonable price due to the start of a sagging housing market. Though lacking excess exterior ornamentation, the beautifully symmetrical steep roof with side gables gave the house an appearance of forgotten elegance in today's modern architecture. I scooped up Liza with one arm, amidst much protest on her part, as Maria unlocked and opened the solid wooden front door.
The spacious front room now appeared crowded as our boxed belongings and furniture left little room to navigate. Intense sunlight poured in everywhere through the two large front windows and cast various shadows on the walls and few open spaces on the hardwood floors.
“I can’t believe all this stuff is ours, Maria said with both hands placed firmly on each side of her head. "I never knew what a pack rat was until now.” She turned and looked directly at me while raising her eyebrows as if she was waiting for me to give some kind of explanation.
“Well, to be honest, a lot of this stuff is my baseball cards and memorabilia to sell," I answered in a feeble defense. I took off my sweat-drenched baseball cap and scratched my unshaven chin. "I think that would make a nice office, don’t you?” I asked, while pointing to the empty room at the end of the hallway.
“Or maybe to grow tomatoes in," Maria said jokingly, as an obvious reference to the extraordinary heat. She flopped down onto the covered sofa and threw her arms up into the air. "I've changed my mind, the first thing we should do is get the blinds up after we set up Liza’s room.”
"Yeah, where is she?” I asked, as I walked towards one of the soon to be bedrooms. “Liza, baby where are you..are you hiding on daddy?” I asked while I peeked into the first room.
I was then lead a few feet down the hall to the middle room by the sound of my daughter’s hands vigorously slapping the four walls in repetitive succession. Precisely in direct center of each of the two opposite walls was what appeared to be a two foot image of a child’s kite that was inverted and outlined in black electrical tape. Each symbol appeared to be identical in overall size and shape to its corresponding twin. This is bizarre, I thought to myself while examined each image. Liza then began to vigorously pound each of the walls with her fists with a growing desperation and annoyance on her petite face.
“Hey, what’s going on in here?” Maria asked as she entered the room. I quickly grabbed Liza and lifted her to stop the ruckus she was causing. She began to grunt and kick feverishly at my interruption of her outburst. “What are these things?” Maria asked after taking our daughter from me and nuzzling her deep within her chest.
“I have no idea, they weren’t here the last time we looked at the house. Probably the kids who lived here before, just being kids," I reassured her.
“Well, take them down, they look creepy.” Maria said, with stern affirmation in her voice. Liza then began to quiet in her mother’s arms while Maria gently ran her fingers through our daughter's winding locks. I began to remove the tape which effectively removed the light blue paint underneath.
“Oh crap, I moaned, another project on the 'to do’ list.” The momentary silence was abruptly brought to an end by a resounding knocking at the front door. Maria and I both looked inquisitively at each other and headed to the front room. I could see through the white frosted glass of the door a large and imposing figure of a man dressed in dark attire.
“Wait here,” I told Maria sternly. As I opened the door, a pungent musty odor of old fabric mixed with an intoxicating aroma of wild flowers caused me to have momentary delay in my present state of awareness.
“Good day,” said a baritone voice that boomed with assuredness. “Allow me to introduce myself. "My name is Ezekiel Walker, and I am the pastor of the little church you folks passed as you drove in.”
I stood for several seconds staring at his sizable frame. His large build, coupled with the severely outdated attire he was adorned in, presented a most unusual and daunting presence.
“Won’t you come in?" my wife asked while looking a bit annoyed at me due to my rudeness.
"Thank you," he said as he removed his frayed black felt fedora and sheepishly entered our new home. His thick but short cropped hair was the color of milk and it perfectly matched the intensity of his untrimmed beard and mustache. "Sure is a hot one today." He wiped perspiration from his wrinkled brow with an old handkerchief that he pulled from his side pocket.
"Yes, it sure is, I interjected. "I'm sorry, my name is James Cooper and this is my wife Maria and our daughter Liza." I hurriedly took my daughter from my wife's tired arms, as Maria wrinkled her nose and turned her lips into a tight ball. This was a playful nod for me to get my act together.
Liza immediately turned toward the preacher and began to coo with a sheepish grin we hadn't seen for some time. His cobalt blue eyes underneath thin wire-rimmed glasses were fixed firmly on her. "She sure is a beautiful child, and an extraordinary one at that," he said.
"Yes, she is the absolute love of our life. She was born with a condition that... uh....well it's a complicated medical thing.” I said, assuming he would not be familiar with a modern medical definition.
"No need to explain Mr. Cooper, God loves her just the same.” He paused for a few seconds as in deliberation while he methodically stroked his chin and stared at his badly worn shoes.
"Are you folks church going?” he asked abruptly.
"Yes, as a matter of fact, we are,” Maria answered. “We come from a Baptist background".
"Well now, that's good to hear, he said as he raised his head. A smile erupted that revealed his badly discolored teeth. I'd like to invite you folks to our meeting on Sunday, if you are able to come."
"Well, we'll probably be pretty busy for some time,” I answered cautiously, as I turned toward the menagerie of scattered brown boxes. I was not ready to make any commitments to any church right now, and especially not the one in question.
"Of course. Maybe some Sunday after you settle in. Anyway, I just wanted to greet you fine folks and welcome you to our little community." The old preacher looked a bit dejected as he put his hat back on and began to turn toward the door.
"Thank you so much," Marie said cheerfully. "And we're sorry about the funeral you had today Reverend."
Ezekiel slowly turned back to us. "We had no funeral today Mrs. Cooper," he replied with a puzzled look on his face.