BY TYLER BARTON
The end of a comedy was the beginning of all else.
—Lorrie Moore, A Gate at the Stairs
“Why the hell do we even say it that way?” Cal says. “With a ‘the’.”
“As if there’s only one,” says June, unshouldering her shovel.
“Exactly! I love you. Speaker of my language exactly.” He plucks a rock from the dirt,
punts it into the night.
“Maybe it was like God was drafting the Bible—”
“Like, at his desk by candlelight?”
“Yep,” June says. “Writing with a quill and—”
June smiles in the dark. “Well, the blood.”
They laugh: June does hers quiet, almost soundless, a clicking. Cal cries. The stars wobble, which is their laughter. Moon a dead tooth. The new neighborhood’s quieter than Cal remembers the world is allowed to be. A flat thud. June’s shovel uncovers a root.
“So he’s drafting—” June tries, but they both keep laughing.
Six hours since they closed on the house. Five calls about the saint in the garden.
“So he’s drafting the Bible?” Cal says. He’s still getting used to the motion, the angle the shovel asks for, the rocks in the loam. He winces each throw, worries the impact will ring out his hands, worries he’ll strike the face—specifically the mouth—of the stone saint and break its humble smile, its perfect hidden teeth. Neither of them know how deep the statue’s buried.
June heaves her spade into the old bed and stomps. “Yep. Drafting.” She pulls it up, the earth. Dirt clods groans as they crumble. “There sits God—inventing the goddamn world.” June’s savoring these moments with something clear to do with her shaking hands, her shaking hands that shame her, saying all you’ve done is run. Five times in that demented city they tried to bring a baby all the way onto the planet. One time it almost took.
June: “And God writes the phrase THE HELL on, like, page—”
“Whichever page hell comes in on.”
“No, seriously. If you go back and read, hell comes in shockingly late.”
“Comes in like Kramer.”
“Yes, everyone clapping,” June says, wiping her forehead with Cal’s shirt. Laughter sits sticking to the backs of their tongues, waiting to leap out at any cause. She grabs up her shovel again and says, “So he writes THE HELL. Smiles, proud.”
“Sip of coffee.”
“No—sip of myrrh.”
“Fucking love myrrh,” Cal says, wondering how myrrh smells. Could they grow myrrh here, after they’re done tearing this garden to pieces for the previous owner’s parents, parents who are livid over the statue of the saint, the statue they gave their son, upset that it was left. Cal had screamed when the old house phone rang. Please, our Gabe should not have left the saint. And rang. We’ll come in the morning. And rang. We want to be sure you didn’t— He hadn’t even realized that the house came with a phone, but there it was on the wall, and yes, ringing again.
The clean shunt of June’s digging lulls Cal further into his exhausted trance. What she has, he thinks, is form—maybe she made graves in a former incarnation.
“Calvin, imagine you’re burying it. You want to bury the spade, then lift.”
“Leverage,” he says, remembering he’ll need to get a job here. Could he do this work?
“So, a sip of—”
“Yes, God does a big stretch, victorious—sip of his myrrh. Hit of his spliff. Ahh. Perfect, he thinks. But then,” June says, “who do you think comes up to him?” “Who comes up to him?”
“Who comes up to him but Timberlake. Justin fucking Timberlake says to God, Uh, God —one last thing…”
“Oh my god,” Cal says, dropping his shovel, doubling over with his horsey cackle.
June thinks, Hello, neighbors. This is how he laughs.
“Holy shit. Timberlake as, as, as…”
“From the Facebook movie.”
“Yes. Yes! Uh, God? Timberlake says. One last thing: drop the ‘The’.”
They wait one round beat before in unison screaming, “It’s cleaner!”
June’s spade knocks what sounds like a dense little bell.
“Wasn’t he supposed to be facing the house?” June says. With her pinky she digs dirt from the saint’s tear ducts. St. Leo the Great—no bigger than a desk lamp and looking, honestly, constipated. Or like he’s been stood up. Still horizontal in his grave, the saint faces the back gate like something’s soon to arrive.
“That’s definitely what they said,” Cal says, reaching both hands into the hole. “I thought they said not to move it.”
“They said a lot of things,” Cal says.
June feels, for the first time in hours, cold.
Cal falls headfirst into the garden trying to bring the saint out of the earth. A ringing.
“Is that the house phone?”
“Does the Pope shit in the woods?”
“I’m fucking ripping it off the wall,” June says.
“Be my hero.”
Before she steps inside, June says, “Please, can we just leave little Leo in there?”
In the kitchen, June resists the urge to smash the phone against the wall.
No words come, but there’s no mistaking human breath.
“You should be in bed,” someone whispers on the line, someone behind the breathing.
“Len, leave it. Those people are trying—”
Then the father of Gabe says, “Listen,” and June yanks the cord from the wall.
Outside, Cal stands the saint on the patio. St. Leo’s cute, June sees now, in a smarmy way. It’s not the robe’s hood, the chubby gut, the sly smile, the thick eyelids, or even the rosary slung low —no, it’s the feet. The saint is shoeless, his toes like ten tiny lollipops.
“Well,” Cal says, hunched over and rubbing his lower back. “I’m putting this thing out front so they can just grab it and go.”
“Face him toward the house?”
“I just think he should watch over us,” June says, following her voice like a bird through an attic. “His last hoorah.” There it goes, out a small round window. “Let’s have sex tonight.”
“You need to go to sleep.”
“Oh,” she turns to him. “I didn’t know we unpacked that yet.” “What?”
“That thing where you tell me what I need.”
As June tries to sleep on the living room couch she replays what the father of Gabe said on his third call that day—Do not touch it. If you dig it out, don’t move it. We’ll handle that. Are you baptized? June didn’t share that she was pretty sure she had been baptized as a child, in a great hall of red glass. Strangely enough, she now recalls having been baptized twice, that the first time didn’t take. Vomit on a man in white. Are you baptized? Shouldn’t he have asked if she had been? He made baptism sound like something that was always happening to you. Are you left- handed? Are you scared? Are you baptized? Maybe she had been, in fact, baptized the first time. Maybe it’d worked, but the second attempt reversed it, cursed forever.
Regardless, June told the worried man that they would do their best. “We’re respectful people,” she added, the phone cord wrapped around her like a mummy’s gauze, a child again.
Sweating, cursing, pinkynail purple and bleeding, Cal eventually gets the statue into a wheelbarrow. In the still foreign house, June sleeps quiet as her laughter. Cal carts the thing around front and sets it on the porch, facing the street.
St. Leo watches, for the first time in ten years, the drama of dawn.
From the sketchy nest above, doves try to hit him with their shit but miss.
At seven in the morning June rises from the couch, walks to the front porch, and turns the saint to face the house. Her house. She shudders, thinking of this place as not it, but mine. Upstairs, on their mattress on the floor, Cal snores.
From inside comes a ringing. The ringing.
“How?” June says into the phone, holding the unplugged cord. “How’s this happening?”
“We want to give you a heads-up that we’ll be by at—”
“Sadly, it broke,” June says, feeling right now no allegiance to truth. “So, just forget it.”
“What are you talking about?”
“We broke him with our shovels, man. Cracked his little head! Plus, his feet were off.” “You dug up the saint? Why the hell would you do that? We told you not to—”
“We pulled him out—and if you’ll fucking listen—his feet came first, and they weren’t there!” June says. “So he can’t stand. He’s useless. He’s broken, and we have to keep him.” She slams the receiver into its cradle like an axe into a door. Out on the porch the saint waits for her. In a moment she’ll put her entire body into the act of dragging him into the foyer, through the living room, and down the crooked, wooden, basement stairs.
Cal wakes to the sound of this work. He knows what he hears, tries hard to find it funny.
When the parents arrive an hour later, their knocking fills the house. June and Cal lie flat inside a refrigerator box in the kitchen, waiting them out. Their breathing seems to wet and weaken the cardboard. Heat gathers around them in webs, a womb. The knocking moves to the back door, and June pulls her feet into the box. It is a nervous, hurried knocking. A knocking that will come every Sunday. A knocking that will never fail to make the baby giggle. A knocking they can only call: the knocking.
“I love you,” Cal says. “June, I love you everywhere. This is silly, all of this. I’m very tired. Let’s just surrender the saint and—”
“—just end this whole thing and move on?” she says, reaching for him.
Tyler Barton is a literary advocate and cofounder of Fear No Lit living in Lancaster, PA. His debut collection of short stories, Eternal Night at the Nature Museum, is forthcoming from Sarabande Books. Find his fiction in The Iowa Review, Kenyon Review, Subtropics, and in the 2020 Best Small Fiction anthology. When he can, he leads free writing workshops for residents of assisted living facilities. Find him at @goftyler or tsbarton.com.
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