(How far away are our neighbors? How far away are we from them?)
* * *
Smith hobbled rather than walked from his car to the church doors. To walk as able-bodied others did had been taken from him years before by diabetes, gout, and sedentary habits he lacked the willpower to break. It was all he could do to shuffle forward, one minuscule step after another, as he maneuvered his ungainly bulk forward on his two canes and his two disobedient feet. Each Sunday the journey seemed longer than the last.
He refused to surrender. It was beneath what little dignity he retained. He would not add to the parish’s burdens by subscribing to Eucharist for the Homebound. Already the parish’s Eucharistic ministers strained to provide for the sacramental needs of its aged and infirm. While he could still walk, however slowly and painfully, he would attend Sunday Mass in the flesh as well as in the spirit.
He was reaching for the door when a hand snaked around him to open it and hold it open. Because the early Mass was seldom well attended and he was usually the first to arrive, it was a charity he seldom received. He turned, started to thank his benefactor for the small mercy, and halted.
It was the newcomer.
Those who sat near him had remarked on the new arrival, and on how far he stood from the norm for the early Mass. He was middle-aged, no more than fifty. He drove a large black Mercedes that suggested greater wealth than anyone else in the parish. He dressed severely, in dark, forbidding colors. He walked swiftly, in quick, staccato steps, as if he disdained to waste a second. He’d yet to speak to anyone. He carried himself with an air of reserve, even authority, that rendered others reluctant to approach and welcome him. But for the past two Sundays he’d come to the early Mass, had genuflected and made the Sign of the Cross at the entrance to the nave, had seated himself in a pew apart from the rest of the congregation, and at the Mass’s end had departed as silently as a wraith.
“Thank you,” Smith said.
The newcomer smiled and nodded.
Smith eased himself into the rearmost pew, laid his canes alongside him, and strove to compose his mind to gratitude to God. His disabilities and near-total isolation made it a greater challenge than the trip from the parking lot to the church entrance.
The isolation was not accidental. Suffering had turned him inward. His interactions with others were distracted at best, bitterly envious at worst. Those he’d once deemed friends had gradually stepped away to become remote, inaccessible. He bore the weight upon his soul with no better grace than his physical infirmities. Even his most fervent prayers were stippled with frustration and resentment.
A hand landed upon his shoulder. Startled, he looked up to find the newcomer gazing down at him. The man’s expression was unreadable.
“You’re alone again,” the newcomer said.
Smith snorted. “You don’t miss much, do you.”
The newcomer’s expression was unchanged. “Three weeks in a row.” He glanced at the two canes. “Do you live alone?”
Smith grunted assent.
“How do you get your necessities?”
“When possible and with difficulty.”
“Hm.” The newcomer straightened, reached into his inside jacket pocket, and brought out his wallet. For a moment Smith thought he was about to be offered money, as if he were a mendicant. He bridled. “I don’t need—”
The newcomer held up a hand, and Smith fell silent. He took a pen from the same pocket, pulled a small white card from his wallet, wrote on it briefly, and handed it to Smith.
Smith eyed it dubiously. It was blank except for what the man had just written on it. “What’s this for?”
“For when you need it,” the newcomer said. “If you need to get around and aren’t up to it, or need anything else you can’t do for yourself, call me. I’ll take care of it.”
Smith peered at him. “Why?”
“We’re neighbors,” the newcomer said.
Smith snorted. “Get off it. I know the names and faces of everyone within ten miles.” He shook his head. “My real neighbors don’t want anything to do with me. If you were one of them, you’d feel the same.”
“Maybe,” the newcomer murmured. “But neighbor means one who has been brought near. Here I am and here you are.” A trickle of other parishioners walked past him, each one glancing at him, lifting an eyebrow or two, and passing on to their accustomed seats. He took no notice, merely nodded at the card, and said “Hold on to it.” As Smith slipped the card into his back pocket, the newcomer turned toward the tabernacle, genuflected and made the Sign of the Cross, and seated himself in the pew at the right edge of the nave, the one he’d occupied in his previous attendances.
Smith stared at him for a long while afterward. His ponderings ended only with the arrival of the celebrant. When the priest turned to the congregation and said “The Lord be with you,” he forced himself erect and strove to concentrate on the ritual.
* * *
Smith was unlocking his car when a pair of other parishioners passed him, conversing in animated voices.
“That’s Evan Conklin,” one said, nodding toward the newcomer as the man headed toward his Mercedes. “Major venture capitalist.”
Smith straightened and stood utterly still.
“Hah!” said another. “We haven’t had one of those around here before. I can’t imagine what need we’d have for one.”
“He won’t be here long,” replied the first. “He came to settle his son’s affairs. The boy died in a car crash about three weeks ago. Conklin’s daughter-in-law is unable to cope.”
“Excuse me!” Smith called out. The two turned toward him, frowning. “Where does he hail from?”
“Onteora County,” the first one said. “About a hundred fifty miles east.”
Smith watched as Conklin’s Mercedes threaded its way out of the lot. When the black car was out of sight, he eased himself into his car, waited until the press of departures had slackened, and drove home.
* * *
Smith's impediments to motion increased as the week passed. When he woke on Sunday morning, he found that he could not lever himself out of bed. An hour’s careful stretching and wiggling of extremities enabled him to rise, but the improvement was insufficient to make it safe for him to drive. It was plain that he would not be attending the early Mass.
He remembered the card.
The card was still in the pocket of his jeans. He picked up his cell phone and dialed the number. Two rings. Three.
“Good morning, Mr. Conklin. This is Darren Smith.”
“The cripple you gave your card last week, in Chemung.”
“Oh. Good morning. What do you need?”
“Eucharist. I can’t leave the house.”
“Ah. What’s your address?”
Smith gave it, heard the sound of a pencil scratching paper.
“Are you okay otherwise?”
“Very good. Hang on.”
The connection broke. Smith hobbled to his front door, unlocked it, and seated himself in his recliner to wait.
* * *
Two and a half hours had elapsed with no sign of a Eucharist-bearing Samaritan when there came a knock at the door. He called out “It’s open, come on in.”
Evan Conklin entered and closed the door quietly behind him. “Excuse me for not getting up,” Smith said.
“It’s okay,” Conklin said. He proffered his right hand. It held a mini-ciborium of the sort Smith knew well.
“Are you prepared to receive the Body of Christ?” Conklin murmured.
“I am,” Smith replied. He held out his hand, and Conklin put the consecrated wafer in it. Smith put it in his mouth, bowed his head, and prayed briefly. Afterward he looked up at Conklin and said “Thank you.”
“Would you like some coffee?” Conklin said.
“Very much, thanks.” Smith started to lever himself out of his chair.
Conklin smiled and waved him back into his seat. “I’ll take care of it.” He went to Smith’s little kitchen and saw to it. Fifteen minutes later each of them had a mug before him.
“Difficult morning?” Conklin said.
“I have them now and then,” Smith said. “Thanks for helping me out. I hate to miss Sunday Mass, but as you can see...”
“I’m not on the parish’s list of homebounds,” Smith said. “I’m fortunate you’re still in town.”
“One of the others said you’re only in Chemung to settle some stuff for your late son and his widow.”
“I was,” Conklin said. “But I’ve been back in Onteora since Tuesday evening.”