A Trip to Amity

Images by Rob Goebel

He fumed as he sat in the still-garaged car, revving its engine in disgust. One of these days I’m just going to leave her behind, he thought, though he knew he never would. He’d thought that off and on for 30 years and hadn’t left her yet. Still, there was some comfort in thinking that it was an option.

Finally, the door from the kitchen into the garage opened. A short, gray-haired woman bustled out; then hustled back in, rushed back out, stuffing makeup into a shiny black purse, and climbed into the car. “I’ll put my face on while we drive,” she said in a tiny, ashamed voice. “That way you can get going.”

He grunted, put the black Ford in gear, and backed quickly out the driveway, scaring the neighbor’s cat’s Sunday morning saunter across the concrete. He tore down the street and screeched around the corner. She held tight to the door handle. “We’ve plenty of time,” she said softly.

“So you say,” he snapped, staring straight out the windshield. “You always say that when you’re making us run late.” She had made them run late thousands of times over their marriage. Most of the time he laughed about it. He even told the two young men who married his daughters to get used to it; lateness was a family trait. Even their son inherited it. He did love his wife. He had from the moment he’d first set eyes on her 35 years earlier, when she was working with a youth group’s money-making breakfast. He loved her this moment, too, though he was as aggravated as hell with her.

“Sorry,” she said, turning her head and looking out her window, watching the houses rush by.

“Sorry doesn’t make up the time we’ve lost. The service starts at 10:30; it’s 9:45 now; we’ve got 30 miles of mostly two-lane to cover; and I told you I wanted to leave at 9:30.” His ears turned as red as his cheeks as impatience reached them.

“I’m sorry,” she said to the window.

“Yes, you’ve been sorry for 30 years now,” he tore on. “Instead of being sorry I wish you’d just get ready on schedule. I’d like you to have a little respect for my feelings, for the way I want to get to places on time. It may not seem like much to you, but most people like their guest minister to be there when worship starts.”

“I thought the service started at 11,” she said softly. “I thought we had plenty of time.”

“Well, it doesn’t. It starts at 10:30, and that’s why I kept asking if you were ready. But no, you just had to—”

“Sorry.”

That was the last spoken by either of them. The only sound was the wind whistling by the windshield as they headed southeast out of Des Moines, picking up speed on State Road 5. After 20 minutes of silent rushing, he slowed, still glaring out the windshield into the morning sun, and turned onto S-23, heading for Palmyra. The sun warmed the car, and he cracked his window to let fresh air in. Maybe it would calm him.

“Do you want to turn on the air conditioner?” his wife asked.

“No, I do not,” he growled. It was still morning. His Lutheran frugality meant he didn’t need to use a luxury that would be greatly needed by noon on that July Sunday. He didn’t want to do anything that would cool his anger, either. He liked keeping it banked, smoldering, just like the humid haze rising from the fields they sped by.

Reaching Palmyra, he turned west on Erbe and headed further into the country. Theirs was the only car on the road, rooster tails of dust rising slowly behind them. The road was rough, and he had to slow. He fingered the window opener, glanced at the A/C knob, sighed, and lowered the window. The sweet smell of corn and beans baking in the summer sun swept into the car, the wind swirling around his black robe hanging behind him, its stoles flapping in the breeze. Fine powdered dirt lifted by prairie winds floated into the car, settling on his perspiring face and coating his robe. His wife didn’t say anything; she just looked out the window, watching farmhouses and fields. He looked at the clock on the dashboard. 10:32. Damn!

“What?” she asked. He glared at her. He hadn’t meant to speak, let alone curse. Dammit, it was all her fault. The outskirts of a small town loomed out of the haze ahead. According to the map tucked safely in the glovebox, it had to be Amity. “Amity, population 400” said the sign they passed, slowing as a white frame church surrounded by sedans and pickup trucks caught his sight. He pulled into the lot, found an empty spot, and parked. He jumped out, yanked open the back door, grabbed his robe off the hanger and began putting it on. His wife sat in the car, putting lipstick on. Why hadn’t she done that on the trip out? He reached in the car, grabbed his Bible and sermon notebook off the back seat, slammed the car door, and left her sitting in the front seat. He looked at his watch as he stormed across the parking lot, stoles flapping behind him. 10:40. Damn. Damn. Damn.

He took the front steps two at a time, something he hadn’t done in years, yanked the door open, and marched down the front aisle. The organist played Martin Luther’s “From Depths of Woe I Cry to Thee.” Still on the prelude, he thought. They must have waited a few minutes for me. I hope she’s on verse one. The lay leader was the only one on the platform and watched his purposeful stride down the aisle. Probably didn’t think I was going to make it. He mounted the platform and settled into a pulpit chair. It was a nice, small church, rather plain, and about half empty. Today’s Lutherans are too lazy to attend church. He sighed and shook his head. The air conditioning felt good as it blew out of the vent above him. He leaned over, smiled ruefully, and whispered, “Sorry I’m late” to the lay leader. The man smiled back, a funny smile.

The organist smiled, too, and launched into another verse. He breathed easier. It was too much to hope she was on the second stanza. Probably the third. He hummed along, remembering the words:

Therefore my hope is in the Lord
and not in mine own merit;
it rests upon His faithful Word
to them of contrite spirit
that He is merciful and just;
this is my comfort and my trust.
His help I wait with patience.

The words stung him deep in his soul. Feeling sheepish, he looked down and noticed how dusty his shoes were. He buffed them on the backs of his trouser legs, then picked up his sermon book and leafed through it, scanning the carefully prepared manuscript. He looked up, tilted his head, and noticed his wife entering the sanctuary. She accepted a bulletin from an usher and made her way down the aisle, found a seat by herself, and sat with her head bowed.

Thinking of the line “His help I wait with patience,” his heart broke. He had been so mean to her. And there was no reason, no reason at all, other than his need to have things the way he liked to have them. A fine thing, he thought, for a minister of the gospel to be so hateful to his wife, especially while on his way to give a sermon. The organist pushed and pulled at the stops, increased the volume, and continued on her musical way.

What harm had her dallying caused? None. None now; none ever in all the years they’d been together. He was lucky to have found such a loving wife, one who put up with his many moods. He would tell her that after the service, as they headed back to Des Moines. I’m sorry, he thought, wishing she could hear him.

She looked up, eyes wide, staring straight at him. Had she heard his thoughts? She mouthed something. It wasn’t “I love you.” He was no lip reader, but he had picked those words off her mouth enough times to recognize them. His brow furrowed as he tried to make out what she was saying. He noticed someone else besides his wife looking at him: the lay leader. He turned to look, but the man turned away. What did he want? The blamed organist was still playing. He looked back to his wife, who was pointing at her bulletin. He went to look at his, but had forgotten to get one when he came in. He looked back at her and shrugged his shoulders. She mouthed her message with exaggerated movements. He leaned forward in the pulpit chair, as if getting closer might help convey her silent words to him. Nothing. He leaned closer, so much so that he almost fell out of the chair. She sighed, closed her eyes, grabbed the back of the pew in front of her, stood up, and spoke.

“We’re in the wrong church.”

He sat back, stunned. He turned to the lay leader who nodded in confirmation. Face burning brightly, he stood up, and with as much dignity as he could, stepped down off the platform, walked down the main aisle, paused by his wife, offered his arm, and together they went out of the building. Going down the front steps, she handed him her bulletin. “Amity Friends Church (Quaker)” it said. A young man, hustling up the walkway toward them looked at the woman and her robed escort. “Excuse me,” she said, “could you tell us where the Amity Lutheran Church is?”

“Sure,” said the man, pointing. “It’s a mile and a half that ways out T-66.”

“Thank you,” she said, leading her husband to the sedan. She started rummaging in her purse, but he placed his hand over hers, stopping her. They went around to her side, he unzipped his robe, fished his keys out of his pocket, unlocked her door, and helped her in. Then he walked around to his side and climbed in.

10:47 said the clock.

“That was the longest seven minutes of my life,” he said, starting the car, putting it in gear and heading west.

“We may as well go on out there. I’ll apologize for going to the wrong church.” Then he snickered. She chuckled. Soon a summer storm of laughter rained down on them so hard that he had trouble keeping the car on the road. A few minutes later they zigged into a lot next to a fine red brick church with a bright white steeple.

They parked next to a sign that said, “Amity Lutheran Church, Sunday School 10:00 a.m., Worship 11:00 a.m.”

10:53 read the dashboard clock. They looked at the clock, the sign, each other, and started giggling again. There was much he wanted to say. And she had some things to say too. But they just sat and laughed. Cars and pickups joined theirs in the lot. Many congregants stared at them: two middle-aged folks, one in a black robe replete with stoles, laughing so hard their car shook.

At 11:05 they were alone in the parking lot. He wiped his eyes, climbed out of the car, zipped his robe, straightened his stoles, and picked up his Bible and sermon notes. Then he walked around the car, opened his wife’s door, took her arm, and headed slowly for the church.


Author Chat Video Interview

J. Brent Bill

J. Brent Bill is a writer, photographer, retreat leader, writing coach, and Quaker minister. He's written and cowritten many books, including Hope and Witness in Dangerous Times; Holy Silence; Life Lessons from a Bad Quaker; and the recently released Amity: Stories from the Heartland. He graduated from Wilmington College and Earlham School of Religion. He’s a member of West Newton (Ind.) Meeting.

4 thoughts on “A Trip to Amity

  1. This is really incredible. No love going to wrong church then full love going to the correct church. Blessed with full imagination how such events do happen in our real life.

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