This is the first short story I ever wrote (that I completed, anyway). I was a senior in high school, and it was later published in its original form (which is not that much different than this version) in a collection of student writing called “26 Odd: Creative Works by Creative Writers.” It’s still my favorite story I’ve written, and I don’t feel like I’ve topped it yet.
Her name was Angela, and her life ended soon after her birth.
She was 68, but her saggy wrinkles and poor posture made her appear decades older. She rarely wore any makeup to hide her age, but she did dye her hair when her whitish-gray roots began to show. Yet she used a completely unnatural reddish-blonde hue that only made her apparent age more obvious. She wore an old pair of eyeglasses with thin rounded frames she had bought used at a church bazaar years before, a prescription that fit her daily needs. Angela did not need a cane, for her back was still holding out, although her hands were fragile and her nails were bitten down. Her fingers, however, were strong enough to grip the banister of the stairs just outside her second floor apartment as she descended them every Thursday and Sunday. Thursday was grocery day, and this tradition was almost never broken. Sunday was the Sabbath day, and, of course, this tradition was never broken.
Angela was a staple at the local Catholic church. She hadn’t missed a day since she was baptized, and her love for the mass was as warm as the greeting she received every Sunday morning from Father Barnabus. Barnabus was a tall man, slim and aging but commanding in voice and stature. His gray hair and gaunt cheekbones could not hide the fire in his eyes, a burning passion for his work. The echo of his voice throughout the high ceilings of the church (a sound which he himself reveled in) demanded respect, and no one respected him more than Angela. The pair standing next to each other was a pure visual contradiction, but the notable difference between them was obviously auditory. Her soft-spokeness was easily overpowered by Barnabus’ declarations, for it seemed like every syllable he uttered was a vocalization of his faith, a never-ending homily on an imaginary pulpit. And Angela hung on his every word, her faith only growing stronger as the years went by. To show her eternal gratitude towards the church, her retirement checks, as meager as they were, were always split between rent, grocery bills, and the collection plate.
In fact, whenever anyone entered her cramped apartment, he would have to wonder how much of her check really went towards her survival. The walls were bare except for a silver crucifix above her bed, and the off-white paint was chipped, the cracks crawling up and across the ceiling. The only furniture was her mother’s old couch and a set of table and chairs left there by the previous tenants, most likely because three of the four chairs had slightly skewed or broken legs. It didn’t seem to matter, though, considering she never had any guests to sit in them to complain.
There was only one other object in the apartment worth noting, and that was the bookshelf that sat perpendicular to the uncomfortable mismatched couch. It had just two shelves, both of which were covered with a thick layer of dust, and the only books on them were the King James version of the Bible, three volumes of an uncompleted encyclopedia set, The Grapes of Wrath by John Steinbeck, and a few grocery store romance novels from her youth. On top of the bookshelf was a lamp whose shade did not quite correspond with its base. This was the lone source of light in the apartment besides the window in her bedroom, which faced the graffitied wall of the adjacent building and provided little light. Next to the lamp was an old photograph in an even older frame – a picture of Angela in her late teens with her arms around an old lover, who seemed just as blissful as she was at the time. She rarely looked at the picture, and, eventually, it seemed as if she had forgotten about its existence entirely.
As for the rest of Angela’s things, they were as plain as the walls. Her wardrobe was of the same caliber – limited and dated, practical but in no way fashionable. She hand washed everything, just after dinner on most nights. Her church offerings left her little for her meals, which consisted of soup, sandwiches, and TV dinners. The latter is ironic in itself, considering she hadn’t owned a television in years. The day Father Barnabus gave his sermon on the evils of movies and television and their corrupting influence on children, as well as adults, was the same day she had the man next door remove it from her home. Ever since, she had no way of drowning out the incessant noise coming from the apartment below, occupied by everyone’s favorite tenant, Cornelius.
Cornelius was a down-to-earth sort of guy in his mid-twenties, a real “party animal” in every sense of the term. There was always something going on at his place on the weekends, and Angela never missed a beat of it. She never walked downstairs to complain, though, quite frankly out of pure fear. Cornelius towered at least a foot and a half over her, was about a foot and a half wider, and his face was covered with various piercings, from his bottom lip to his left eyebrow. His ears were gauged and his hair was jet black, spiked with a bit of gel in parts here and there. His clothes were as black as his hair, covering his various tattoos and well built arms. Deep down, however, Cornelius had a heart of gold and a sense of genuine goodness and honesty that could be seen through his piercing blue eyes. His friends were even known to call him “Corny” because of his hopelessly romantic nature. Few took the time to look beneath the surface, and he was easily stereotyped by most, including Angela. She had never seen him at Sunday mass, and that was all she needed to know.
Things went on like this for years, for nothing ever really changed in that little city or in Angela’s life, especially after she had retired. Her checks came, the math was done, and the collection plate was full – that is until one fateful day when the mailbox was empty. She couldn’t understand why but continued to faithfully check it on a daily basis, only to turn up empty handed every time. Two weeks later, she received a letter in the mail saying something about a change of address, but she had never made such a request. She wrote a confused letter in return asking for clarification, but never received a reply.
Left with no other choice, Angela began to dip into her savings for her expenses. She had kept a healthy bank account for just such emergencies. Her timing could not have been worse, however. Father Barnabus had a very different sermon for his followers that Sunday. “Brothers and sisters,” he began, “look around you at the walls of our beautiful church. Take a closer look now…observe the paint slowly chipping away! Notice the crack in the bottom of St. Peter’s window! The warped wood that makes up the very pews you sit in and that balcony above you! Hear the organ’s keys as they go flat! This is God’s house! These imperfections are abominations! They are an insult to his grace and beauty! That is why you must give brothers and sisters! Give like you have never given before!” His face was bright red and his arms flailed around, his deep green robe with gold trim washing over and then receding back from his hands like the ocean hitting a beach and then crawling back again. Only his bony, rigid index finger, poised and accusing, could be seen at all times.
Angela reached deep into her purse, took out her glasses, pushed them up across her nose, and took out all she had left with her. She knew she couldn’t afford to give more than the usual offering, but this was indeed an emergency. When the plate came to her, she dropped all she had onto it and looked back up at the altar, smiling a bit. The smile on Barnabus’ face was much wider, however, as his eyes focused on the plate. “If you give God a little of what’s left, that’s exactly what you’re going to get from God.” His well-chosen words had made their mark.
That night, Angela lay on her bed and stared up at the ceiling, wishing the creaky old fan above her was still working. All of a sudden, there was a knock at the door. She sat up with a startled jump and put a hand to her racing heart. Taking her glasses off the nightstand and putting them on, she quickly walked to the door as someone continued to pound, and stood up on her toes to peer through the peephole. There before her was the distorted image of Cornelius, his face stretched across the peephole like a reflection in a bubble. He was anxiously swaying back and forth awaiting a response.
Angela pulled the bar away from the lock and nervously peeked out. “What do you want?” she quietly inquired.
”Well that‘s a greeting, isn’t it? Hello to you too!”
There was no response.
“I hate to bother you, miss, and I know this sounds like the worst cliché ever, but the store down the street’s closed and I need some sugar for my coffee. Have you got any I could borrow?” She nodded and walked into the kitchen to get the bowl of sugar.
The door slowly creaked open and Cornelius took a step inside, leaning against the door frame. When Angela came back in, she saw him and jumped again, dropping the bowl and spilling the sugar all over the floor. Cornelius scratched his cheek and said, “Sorry, I didn’t mean to startle you. I know I haven’t shaved in a while, but I wasn’t aware I looked that scary!” As he bent over to help her clean up the mess, she slowly backed away and stared at him in trepidation, watching his every movement. “You know, I’m really not as creepy as I look. I didn’t come here to rob you or anything.” He stopped himself and looked around. “Not that there’s much to steal around here anyway, unless I’m interested in ancient holy relics.” He pointed at the cross on the wall and laughed a bit. Angela was not amused.
”So you’re telling me you don’t get bored around here? No TV, no music, no pictures on the walls…Hey, who’s this? Your husband?” He picked up the picture next to the lamp, brushing the dust away, and Angela quickly snatched it away from him.
“I was never married.”
Cornelius’ eyes widened. “Sorry I asked.”
“First you disturb my peace, then you enter my home without my permission, then you insult my home, and you top it all off by trying to pry into my personal business! Then, as soon as you get what you want, you’ll go back downstairs and blast your so-called music and party with your hoodlum friends until all hours of the morning while I lie here awake all night and…” She stopped cold, realizing the floodgate she had just released.
”How long have you been waiting to say that to me? Impressive…very forceful for such an unsuspecting little old lady. I like that. You know, I don’t think I ever caught your name.”
He waited a moment, and she sharply replied, “Angela.”
”Well, Angela, pleased to meet you. I’m Cornelius.” He extended his hand, but she just kept her arms crossed. “Listen, I’m sorry about the noise pollution, Ang,” he implored. “I’ll tell my friends to try and keep it down from now on, okay?”
“Do not call me Ang,” she snapped.
His smile quickly faded. “You don’t get many visitors around here, do you? What do you do for fun? Do you even go out at all?”
“I go to church every Sunday and God fulfills my daily life. Therefore, I have no fear of straying from the path to heaven. That’s all I really need,” she said affirmingly.
”Who are you trying to convince – me or yourself?” Cornelius quipped.
“And what is that supposed to mean? Are you insulting my beliefs now too?” Angela was turning redder by the minute.
”No, believe what you like. Whatever gets you through the day, lady. The thing that bothers me is that you gave up on everything else in your life. Don’t you believe in having a good time sometimes? Associating with your neighbors perhaps, even if it’s to tell them to shut the hell up?”
Angela pointed her finger towards the door and shouted, “Leave!” Cornelius couldn’t help himself any longer. It’s not that he wanted to upset her further or attack her religion; it’s just that he took pity on her because she could not see the life that had passed before her eyes. He had seen it all before, especially in his own family.
”Haven’t you ever questioned the Bible? Or why you buy absolutely every word of it so easily? Was it even your choice or is this the life your parents chose for you?” He didn’t give her enough time to answer. He wanted to get his point made before she threw him out. He quickly pointed to the offending picture. “What? Didn’t he make you happy? Didn’t life make you happy enough? The life that God gave you, with the gift of free will attached no less. I think the real reason you despise my friends and I so much is because you’re jealous. You’re jealous that we can live life with such carefree abandon because we don’t know where we’re going, and we frankly don’t give a damn! Wouldn’t you, even for just one day, like to live your life without having to constantly watch everything you do, looking over your shoulder for some imaginary disciplinary figure to reprimand you every time you squeezed a bit of pleasure out of everyday existence? You’re not celebrating your faith; you’re obsessing over it!”
Angela, for one of the first times in her life, took charge and ordered, “Get out! Out of my home this instant!” She repeated this over and over until he just shook his head and walked out.
Just as she was closing the door, however, Cornelius had to leave her with one last thought. “Anything you place that much faith in is bound to collapse.” She slammed the door hard and sat back on the couch, slipping her glasses off again and taking the picture in her hand, staring at it intently. Slowly, but surely, she began to cry.
Angela didn’t sleep that night. All she could think about was Cornelius’ words and the “what ifs” and “could have beens.” For the first time since her youth, she felt an emptiness growing inside of her heart. The boy in that picture was Angela’s high school sweetheart. It was the conventional happy-go-lucky relationship that sappy Friday night movies are made of. They both had similar tastes, hung out with the same crowd, and had an equal passion for life that had kept them both past curfew on more than one occasion, but they knew it was worth any punishment for just one more breath of fresh air as it flew past them at eighty miles per hour on the open roads, miles away from their homes, their city, and their troubles.
College came up before they knew it, however. She wanted to stay close to home with an undeclared major; he wanted to move to another state and study science. This was their only difference. While she used to fight it as a teenager, she was raised and would always be that perfect little Catholic schoolgirl inside, and there was no place for science in that world. “Whatever happened to that ‘undecided’ part of me?” she thought as she sat with her legs dangling over the side of her bed, but just as quickly dismissed it. She lay on the bed and stared up at the crucifix above her. It was decided. Tomorrow, she would see Father Barnabus.
Bright and early the next day, Angela was knocking lightly on Barnabus’ door, a rather lavish place that sat just a few feet from the church. As she waited for him to answer, she noticed that the door was artistically carved with a large cursive “B” with vines growing through and around it. The rest of the outside of the home still smelled a bit of fresh white paint covering the ugly, darker jade it was before, and the evergreen roof on top appeared to be recently re-shingled. The door suddenly swung open and there he stood, garbed in white and gold this time. “Angela!” he exclaimed, wrapping his arms around her small frame twice. “What brings you here this fine Monday morning my child?”
”Well,” she began, “I had a visitor last night…”
Cutting her off, Barnabus began a story of his own. “I, too, had a visitor last night, Angela. It was one of the architects that are helping with the restoration of the church. It seems the costs are going to be much higher than I had previously anticipated. And I noticed that your offerings have gotten significantly smaller over the past few months…” Angela bowed her head a bit, guilt rushing over her face. “But it is no matter. I’m sure we’ll find some way to raise the money. What is it that you wanted again?”
”Oh, nothing. I’ll see you on Sunday, Father,” she replied slowly, placing her hand over her heart as she felt her emptiness grow a bit more.
“I’ll see you on Sunday then, my child.”
As she walked home, Barnabus turned and a shadow fell upon his face. His pearly white teeth showed through the darkness, however, as his grin climbed from one side of his face to the other. The smile was so wide that his cheeks curled around it and it seemed like a few extra teeth had grown in just to complete it.
Angela’s savings depleted faster and faster over the following few weeks, which became more and more obvious in her appearance. The reddish-blonde hair dye had long since faded, whitish-gray roots grown almost fully in. Her wrinkles seemed to multiply and grow like the roots of a tree across her body. The sparkle in her eyes even seemed to dim a bit, as if they were two stars knowing the sun was right around the mountain. Her nights were restless and her days dragged on and on. She treaded even slower than she used to, and, most unusually, she barely made it to church on time. The walk there seemed longer and longer every Sunday, and Angela just couldn’t seem to find a reserve driving force inside her to move any faster.
Her offerings continued as usual, though, and other things had to be sacrificed. First the dining room set, then the couch, the shelves, and the bed frame. After just two more weeks, the entire apartment was no longer affordable. Angela held onto her crucifix and made a home of the alleyway behind her former place. There she lived on anything she could scrounge together, for her money was long gone, even for the church. Her thoughts were clouded and jumbled, and she’d stare up at the sky mumbling prayers to herself for days.
Finally, that Sunday, the bells rang as usual, but it was a much more of a glorious sound to Angela than it had ever been before. She stood up and tried to run towards the noise, stumbling over every crack and indentation in the sidewalk on the way, like a toddler just learning to walk. Excitedly, with the last bit of strength she had, she flung open the church doors and thrust herself in. The entire congregation, including Barnabus, had their backs turned and did not notice her. She went to speak, but her throat was so dry that she could not force a word out, so she grasped the elegant angel sculpture holding the holy water and began to drink from it.
Just then, Barnabus turned and spotted her. He signaled the head usher in the corner and mouthed, “Remove her,” as quietly as possible. Some of the congregation turned around and gazed on her actions with horror; others completely ignored the spectacle as Barnabus continued with the mass. The ushers came running and seized her by the arms, thrusting her into the street once more. Her frail body hit the ground with a thud, her glasses falling off her face and shattering all over the sidewalk. She scrambled to pick up the broken lenses, but had no energy left to get up and protest. Angela already knew her words would do no good.
Angela tried to make it back to the alley, but she collapsed several times on the way. A day or two passed, and no one even seemed to notice the living obstruction on the sidewalk. She finally lay on the curb, exhausted and starving, her dress dirty and torn, hair molting – a living corpse at best. The emptiness had overtaken her heart, her motivation long gone. The last thing she remembered seeing was a car pulling up to the traffic light near the curb. It was a brand new red Cadillac, and the automatic window slowly rolled down. It was Barnabus at the wheel. Their eyes met for one brief moment and fixed on each other, his face remaining stoic and expressionless. The window slowly moved up again without another thought, cutting off her last bit of human contact, and the car rolled away. Minutes later, it was said that Cornelius happened by, saw her lying on the ground, took her in his arms, and lay her head finally down to rest.
Her name was Angela, and her life ended soon after her birth.