It’s safer in the dark, and when the lights go down I’m glad. The screen ahead wakes up in startled white, and, as a soft drink commercial plays, someone in the booth adjusts the camera: The image jerks to center, then settles into focus. A couple stumbles their way into seats and pulls off their jackets as a child runs up the aisle, spilling popcorn. The previews have begun.
Outside the theater, a group of true believers had come to take advantage of the opportunity that grace and the modern cinema affords them. They had anchored a plastic statue of their savior to a station wagon luggage rack, and driven to the far side of the parking lot (as close as the law will allow them, I suppose) to wave signs and hand out tracts. I drove past, looking away, and waited in the car until a parking space opened at the front of the lot, then ducked my head as I got out and entered the theater, thankful that they couldn’t see me.
Perhaps a similar vigil still takes place outside Nick’s house, where his mother and stepfather may have settled back into the guarded normality of a troubled marriage, or are separated and deciding to divorce. Nick isn’t with them, for better or worse: He is marking time for the summer with his father’s family, as he did last summer, or maybe taking an extra term in school. In any case I’ve had no news of him since the bitter blessing that we—all of us here: the couple in front of me, the child above, a last few stragglers taking their seats as the lights dim—have come to witness on the screen.
Below me a family creeps in, cowed by the darkness and the lighted screen, and finds their seats: Three children sit between their parents. They pass a bucket of popcorn among them. After a few ads for coming attractions, a cartoon comes on, a Bible story told in singing animation: the price we pay for seeking moral uplift at the multiplex. A group of vegetables, complete with eyes and ears, faces and—presumably—souls, reenact the story of Lazarus. A cucumber evangelist—unidentified, but most certainly John, who is called the apostle Jesus loved—relates the Savior’s journey to the house of Mary and Martha, both stalks of broccoli, to find that their brother Lazarus has recently died. At the tomb, Jesus (shown only as a portentous shadow at the foot of the screen), commands the stone to be rolled away. We are transported to the inside of the tomb where light floods the interior as the stone is withdrawn and the Shadow falls across the open door. We hear His voice bid the dead arise and see a crown of cauliflower, laid peacefully on a slab of rock, stir beneath what appear to be a waxed paper shroud. Outside the tomb, the crowd watches first in dread, then amazement as the ruffled, white head inches toward the opening, and Lazarus, blinking, emerges unspoiled into the light. I unzip my jacket and expose the collar that marks me, as much as it can in the dark, for what I am.
And what are we to make of this? What are we to do, marvel as much at the vibrant and tasteless retelling as the miracle itself? How are we to regard the Shadow at whose hands—if It has hands—the miracle has been enacted? What are we to feel for this cruciferous family, reunited and happy in the end? And the crowd of onlookers—a whole produce department of greens and legumes—will they, animate creatures all, ever reconsider what they’ve witnessed, and who or what has not been saved? Why Lazarus, they fail to ask, and why not someone else? For whom is this particular miracle meant?
Of course they won’t. A miracle simply occurs—there is no further question. But why? Will no one ask what the leper felt as he returned to his home to find his children frightened strangers, his wife mistrustful and grudging in her embrace? Or what exactly the blind man saw as his parents aged and died in his restored sight? Or how Lazarus felt on the 10th anniversary of the miraculous day after his long sleep in the tomb?
On that question, the Gospel of John is silent; Lazarus is never mentioned again. As the sun set and the long line of astonished onlookers thinned and drifted off, convinced and unsettled, did he lie down and, for a moment, wish for the cool dark from which he’d come, for the oblivion he hadn’t asked to be awakened from? Did he wonder what, exactly, he’d been spared—and to what purpose? So that he could serve, unvolunteering, as the sign of another’s promise? To live out this odd twilight life the target of stares and whispers? To spend the rest of his days in numb disbelief, dreading again his approaching end? What sort of blessing, what sort of salvation, was this? And what is Nick doing now, I wonder, as the cartoon’s credits end and the feature, made in this odd afterlife of his, begins? I cross my legs and consider the darkness: With all eyes forward, I am all but invisible and no more interesting, unrecognized, than anyone else here who has come to watch the movie and not search the audience for a face they might have seen on television. I am as alone and untroubled as cauliflower in the tomb.
In the classroom he was restless, his fingers drumming out figures of notes, his desktop an imagined piano, his eyes studiously vacant, as if he knew I noticed and would assume him lost in thought, mentally rehearsing a particularly vexing piece. As if he assumed I’d admire his application, his dedicated skill. I did. Nick was a worker, a practicer. Not an original mind, no—I knew this after a week of class: He listened attentively when others spoke, then rehearsed their thoughts in his own balanced prose. His gift is a sort of mimicry, a talent for restatement; and what he writes, he writes beautifully. But still he says nothing new. He has his quirks (for a while all praiseworthy things are ‘quite lovely’—a phrase I underline in red and urge him to avoid), but he’s a talented student, and if he affects nonchalance in his judgments, if his words sometimes stray into pomposity (quite lovely?—from a 17-year-old?), then the sin is easily forgiven: What a teacher praises—what a teacher can come to love, if he is not careful—is the rapt attention of a good student.
The Bishop had hinted as much—and a good deal more. “And this was a student in your classes?” I shrug. It isn’t a question. “And that was all?”
“We hit it off. I got to know him, and his family.” My hands are open, palms up, in my lap. The afternoon sun is bright on the blinds behind him at his enormous desk.
“We had common interests, mostly music, and he excelled in class.”
“And that would explain your visit to the hospital?”
“Not entirely.” I stiffen at his tone, sit up, and level my eyes on his. “There’s also a matter of pastoral care—a student of mine, after all.”
He leans forward, pressing the point. “One you had gotten to know quite well.”
He looks down. “And his family. Of course.”
Our friendship begins when I recognize a melody he’s whistling at the start of class, less for his own pleasure than to be heard taking pleasure in it, and look up from the roster. “Who’s whistling Liszt?” The class goes silent, off guard, and he raises his hand, caught in an instant of perfect confession. We talk for a moment, before I have to return to taking attendance, about recordings and performers, and after class I quiz him further. His preferences are odd for his age, the landmark recordings of a generation ago. Mention of newer players draws a blank. That night I pull down a recent performance of the second Liszt concerto and burn him a copy. When he comes in the next day, he’s done the same for me with his own recording.
Of course the movie gets the dynamics more or less exactly wrong. The child on the screen is dogged and noble, talentless but determined to rise above his failings. His teacher, a man—a priest—decidedly unlike me, a photogenic firebrand against my clumsy middle age—sees this hidden potential. A bond grows over remedial studies after school. They struggle together, battle the material, and inevitably the boy not only masters his work, but writes an essay, which, in its insight and daring, wins him a scholarship—though not before the necessary complication requiring the miracle arises.
Nick was not insightful or daring. He was a skillful redactor of what he learned. I watched him work hard and read thoroughly, and I also watched him work to please me, which is always the first task of a good student. I was flattered when he glossed my comments in his papers; gratified, as we started a slide lecture in my Art History class, to see him set up the projectors before I could ask; and finally entertained at the comments his friends repeated, angling for some favor of their own—I was his favorite, I was the one he respected. And if I grew to forgive him his occasional solipsism, if I passed over the error that I might have noted in one of his less-talented classmates—and if a common interest seals the bond as we traded discs weekly and discussed music in my classroom over lunch—then it is in just such currency that the debts of affection between teacher and student are paid.
He loved Rachmaninoff and Chopin, the grand and sentimental pieces teenagers always do, and prided himself on his taste. He gave the impression that what he admired somehow made him smarter, as if an inclination for the classics is the mark of sophistication. I didn’t correct that, but when I could, I brought in pieces that I knew would challenge him, and if I hit the mark, I was glad: I am a teacher, after all, and he was a child.
But he was not my child, and when the talk turned to family (I was curious, I’ll admit: Who nurtured his interests? Who first played that Liszt concerto for him? Who preceded me?), his conversation cools. I have met his mother, a pert and careful woman, young to have a child in high school, but already in a second marriage: “She’s just a Midwestern cheerleader,” he says with a shrug. And his stepfather?
“He’s an ass.”
“Why do you say that?”
He looks away. “He just is.”
“Everyone hates his father at your age—I did.” The disc player on the table beneath the chalkboard falls silent. The disc within hisses to a halt. The piece has ended.
“He’s an ass. That’s all. It’s private.” He stands up to leave as the bell rings. I am his teacher, after all—and only that. And he is a child.
The Bishop shifts in his seat and drums his plump fingers on the surface of his desk. “I’ve had a chance to review the file,” he says casually, tapping a manila folder as if he expects me to recognize it. He sits forward and smiles, resting his elbows on the desk as if sharing a confidence. “I won’t be recommending further action.”
“Further action?” I stare back blankly across the expanse of his desk. “I don’t understand. This is what you wanted to tell me?”
“No, no—of course not.” And he is suddenly all business, drawing himself up and brushing off the blotter as if sighting a crumb. “There’s the question of how we should respond.”
“Respond to what?”
“Well, there hasn’t been a complaint—not exactly.” He opens the file and leafs through the top few pages before lifting out a form. Light from the window behind him glows through it, lighting it in reverse. “This is the police report.”
“The police report? How did you—”
“It’s public record.” He looks at me sternly for a moment, then the conspiratorial smile reappears. “Miracle cures. Any doctor can tell you stories, maybe a few of them—things he’s heard of, even seen. And with the Church still investigating.” Another shrug. “Cooperation is easy in some things.”
“A police report of the cure?”
“Oh, goodness no—the cure?” He chuckles to himself, then, “Of the domestic disturbance, as they call it.” He lays the paper flat and points to the phrase as if citing a verse, “The argument between the mother and stepfather.” He frowns and looks up. “You’re certainly aware of that?”
“Well, it seems that a certain comment has arisen. About your place on the staff, your work, and your relationship with the boy.” He looks up, brightly. “I understand. I taught for a while myself. A particular fondness, right?”
“Well, yes, but as a student. A student in class—”
“And whose treatment in a hospital you were aware of.”
“Only after prayers were requested. On the announcements.”
“But also before that, I believe.” His eyes are down, he is arranging a sheaf of papers before him in a grid: a game or a puzzle he appears absorbed in working out. “The relationship, I mean.”
“The parents requested his schoolwork—the mother called me.”
“There,” he says, dropping a last page into place. “She called you. And you took that as an invitation to visit—of course. Due diligence as teacher and pastor. Entirely plausible.”
The diagnosis, when it came, was less a surprise than a possibility I had consciously put out of mind. For a week he had found it hard to type, and the imagined improvisations no longer occupied his fingers on the desktop. He complained of headaches, and a looseness in his handwriting crept into his papers. He was absent on a Friday, and three days later his mother called the school with the news. A biopsy would be performed that afternoon. Prayers were requested.
The whole anxious episode is omitted from the film. Our hero learns of his student’s illness and unthinkingly, selflessly rushes to the ward, arriving before the child is out of the anesthetic. But I sat in the parking lot where a few days later the faithful would come to stand with signs and prayers of their own, and I debated what right I had to be there, what right to intrude. I was not family, and this was not an occasion for a casual call, no matter how I would later make it seem to the Bishop. Even the Gospel story has Jesus hear the suggestion that for Lazarus nothing more could be done. But still he caused the stone to be rolled away, and still I got out of the car and crossed the lot to the hospital. Miracles are worked, after all, and worked as much for those whose lives are affected as for the crowd of witnesses inevitably gathered to certify that something—something improbable, something that should not have been accomplished—has taken place in their sight.
And that was not quite how it happened. In the film, in the minds of those around me in the theater, a young man in a black and Roman collar, clean-cut and desperately hopeful, extends his hand toward the boy in the hospital bed. He raises his other hand to God and offers a prayer intimated in whispered voice-over. In the film—in fantasy—the child is angelically asleep, but Nick was awake when I arrived, and smiled as I said hello. He turned his head to show me the scar. His mother, watching from the corner, smiled palely, dark circles under her eyes. I placed my hand on his head impulsively and gently brushed the stitches with the side of my thumb. “Does it hurt?”
“Just a slight headache—just like they said.” His scalp is warm beneath my palm, and for a moment I am acutely conscious of how much I care for him—how I would lift him up and hold him if I could. But he is too old for that: He’s 17—another fact the believers in the parking lot and in the seats around me have gotten wrong; they see a winsome cherub, not the unshaven adolescent in a rumpled hospital bed, his body giving off the tang of unwashed flesh in the still heat of his room.
His mother sighs and smiles again, and is about to speak when I look down sharply. I had felt a crumbling sensation under my thumb, as if a thin crust of blood had dried along the edges of the incision and is now flaking away. But this is more: The stitches themselves break apart, spilling down the side of his head and trailing past his ear. I jerk my hand away, afraid I might have hurt him, horrified at the thought. “What’s that?” he asks, suddenly alert. His mother starts up and stares. She sees what I see: The bristles of the sutures are scattered on his neck and shoulder, below a wound that looks half-erased, a sketch of an injury left incomplete, with the skin whole and unbroken where it had once been sewn.
“What is it?” he asks, sitting up, and I place my hand back on his head and push him gently down, my thumb retracing the path it had swept along the bristling surface of the scar. His mother and I gape unthinking as the last of the ugly line crumbles and falls away, the stitches dropping across his cheek as his hand comes up to feel them. She gasps and takes an incredulous step back from the bed before looking wildly toward the hallway and lurching from the room, a hand across her mouth as a sob escapes her. I take my hand away: Only a slight red line remains of where the incision had been. “What?” he demands. But I can’t speak. His mother is shouting in the hallway. “Is it all right?” he asks. My stomach buckles, and I step back into the bathroom behind me. Doubled over, head swimming, I hear the nurses rush into the room where their patient now shows no evidence of their care. The miracle is complete.
But the film shows something different. The priest, alone with the boy in the bed, kneels and extends his hand in thrilled assurance toward the sleeping child, his prayer no less fervent for his confidence in what will happen next. His hand makes contact, squarely covering the dark line in the skin with his palm, and a sort of electric pulse passes between them as the light around the bed shifts subtly and music wells up. The camera stays on the tense and ministrative hand until the swell of sound peaks and it relaxes and pulls away: His scar is gone, the healthy flesh restored. The boy’s eyelids flutter as he wakes and turns his face upward, into the light. Around me in the darkness, a few of the faithful break into weak applause. A cell phone lights up in the rows below, creating a halo around its user’s head before it is snapped shut.
Of course there was no music. There was no glow or odor of sanctity in the room—if anything, the heat from the closed window and the crush of bodies brewed the sour reek of vomit and, before Nick was bundled onto a gurney and rushed from the room, the place had the usual human scent commingling about us, all sickness and confusion as the hurried nurses quelled raised voices, made a few hushed and urgent intercom calls and then, as his mother and I watched from the hallway, wheeled him away to certify the substance of things hoped for.
I leaned forward and placed both hands flat on the Bishop’s desk. “If I’ve been accused of something, I believe I have the right to—”
“There’s been no real complaint. None whatsoever.” He gathers up the papers one by one and taps their edges flush. “Not about you, at least. But the atmosphere among the students, the parents at the school—you understand?” It isn’t a question.
“I have a job, don’t I?”
“We’ll cover for you, there. The term is ending after the coming week. Certainly you can leave plans, a final exam. That can be taken care of?”
“Then where are you sending me? What’s going on?”
“Healing is what’s going on, that’s all: a time to recoup, to meditate on a fortunate event. At a distance.”
“Another parish school—you’ll have work to do, real work with new students. Just as you’ve done so well in the past. But a different setting. At least for the time being.”
n the diagnostics waiting room, his mother holds my hand and weeps, her face buried in a tissue she clutches to her nose. She rocks in her seat as the bay window before us shows her son’s body, shrouded in a blanket, his head at the center of the machine that rotates around him and maps the site of the surgery, the machine that will confirm my worst fears: There is no longer any scar—that much we know—and every trace of the surgery is also gone. The growth that had revealed itself to the same instruments the afternoon before is now missing from the readings, a dark knot in his brain has been untied without evidence, and only the clear, untroubled map of God’s creation is manifest on the screen before the frowning technicians.
That night, my picture appears on television, and I have to take the phone off its hook. After a dozen calls—from the formerly hopeless and the newly curious—I’d sat down for a moment, considering whether someone might not have heard the story, might not have seen the doctors interviewed, might not have heard the word miracle flaunted as if it were not a term of personal judgment—someone who, absorbed in their own sorrows, might be in genuine need. Then the phone begins to ring again, and I count 25 long pulls at the bell before it stops. I take the receiver from its cradle and wait for the dial tone to cut off.
Two days later he is home from the hospital, his discharge as much for his sake as to discourage the throng of well-wishers who have come to glean their share of the story. They have massed at the edge of the hospital grounds, clutching rosaries and placards attesting to their faith. They have prayed and stared up, unsure exactly which window lit the scene they replay in their minds: A man in a black and Roman collar, clean-cut and hopeful, places his hand on the head of a boy in the bed beside him. They have found out the back entrances, hidden themselves in closets and posed as patients or staff. The night before he is discharged, a police officer is posted at either end of the corridor, as if the boy had somehow become dangerous. One confused and resourceful young woman, finding his room, knelt beside him for a few moments as he slept, staring raptly at his face in the half-light before she is apprehended and escorted out of the building. That night she appears on the evening news, recounting her story: an incurable illness, vaguely described, which is already—she is sure of it—cured. First Nick’s picture, then mine, taken from a recent yearbook, is flashed on the screen behind the sound of her voice. “God is here with us,” she intones. “I could feel Him.”
A similar scene plays out at school: Students slow their steps as they pass my room, staring in bemusement. Sharp whispers before the bell each hour settle into rapt distraction. My students are uncomfortably quiet, both alert and distracted. No hands go up when I ask a question or prompt a response. Each hour is measured out and endless. Conversation falters over lunch. A fellow teacher in the room across the hall, an older woman who has never stopped mourning a child lost to leukemia a decade before, waylays me at the end of the day. “Is it true?” she asks, her eyes tense and despairing. Why could a miracle not have happened for her? she must wonder. Why Nick and not her child? When I visit him a day later I find a group on the street outside his house, and the word goes out as I climb the steps: The wonder-worker has arrived.
The visit is difficult. I sit stiffly in a chair opposite him; he is stretched out on the couch under an afghan. His stepfather, a tongue-tied, rough-edged man, frets between us, uneasy with a priest in the house, as if he fears he might give inadvertent offense less to me than to God Himself. Nick is dull and tired, still on the pain medications his doctors prescribe and irritable from all of the attention. Mine is not the only phone off the hook these days. “They get all excited if I look out a window,” he says, waving loosely at the street. And for my part I am ill at ease as well: What is there to say? News of the doctors’ reports, news that no verifiable cause can be found for the missing lesion—a spot incontrovertibly documented on celluloid—has been confirmed in the local papers, witnessed on the evening news. After a few minutes of polite conversation, I rise to leave, and as the door shuts behind me, I hunch my shoulders and look down, ducking into the car and driving off in the direction opposite the shouts from the corner.
On screen the story also ends abruptly, but before I would have called it done. After a scene of thanksgiving, after an embrace that clumsily includes the priest, the boy, his mother, and a doctor (once doubtful, now brought to the threshold of belief, we are somehow assured), the miracle worker throws his coat over his shoulder and boards an elevator. He descends to the lobby in silence, accompanied by medical staff and a girl in a wheelchair, and watches the girl ushered out by her parents through wide glass doors. Then he follows, the street gradually filling with light until he is no more than a thinning silhouette, a shadow in the white confusion of the day. The screen fades to white and music rises as credits roll upward. So it ends.
But nothing really ends, of course. Mornings I am greeted uncomfortably or—which is worse—too warmly, though the all-consuming topic is never broached, and soon I am alone in the teachers’ lounge, alone at the mailboxes in the office. Attendance declines in my classes as students stay away or their parents have them transferred, and I stop taking attendance. The woman across the hall hurries to class and shuts her door, refusing to meet my gaze. I am surprised in the school parking lot, interviewed and prodded, and stutteringly made to explain that I had no explicit desire for a cure, and no comment on the outcome—and I am asked why not? As if a miracle had to have been my intent; as if I must have meant somehow to consciously manipulate the mechanics of grace.
And soon we are all back in the news. His mother and stepfather have had an argument, and the watchers outside the house, alert to every noise and nuance of light and shadow on the drawn curtains, call the police. Their miracle, they imagine, is in danger. On the evening broadcast Nick and his mother are shown being escorted from the house, their eyes averted, his mother holding a handkerchief to her face. The next day school is alive with rumors, and I learn that they have taken refuge in a local motel. I have no doubt about what has happened: A marriage already sinking has been asked to carry the weight of an act I did not ask to perform, of the blessings we’ve all received unbidden. How much grace, I wonder, should anyone have to bear? The credits over, the screen ahead fades slowly to black, and I get up, zipping my jacket up to my chin, hunching my shoulders and looking down as I find the exit.
A few days later Nick stops by school, returning a disc I had loaned him. His face looks puffy and flushed against the collar of his white shirt, but he tells me only good news: The brain scans still show nothing, his doctor has taken him off his medication, and his handwriting is improving. “Here,” he says, handing me a small envelope.
“Just a card,” he says, and shrugs. “It took me an hour and a half to write.”
I turn it over, rub my thumb across my name on the envelope as I did when I brushed the stitches away. But my name, in his odd, attenuated handwriting, remains.
“I’m sorry, Nick. I didn’t mean to—”
He bristles: This is not the scene he’d decided on. “That’s all right. That’s private. Never mind.” Private? Of course. In the end, I’m his teacher. “Look, I’m going to spend the summer with my dad. I’ll see you when I’m back.” That’s a lie, and we both know it, but we say goodbye, and I watch him walk down the hallway, his white shirt catching the glare of the sunlight through the windows above the rows of lockers, before he turns and disappears down the stairs.
The Bishop looks up from the file. “Maybe in the fall all of this will have blown over. Then we can talk again.”
“I asked for none of this,” I say pleadingly. “I didn’t do anything.”
“Of course not. Miracle cures! Not every unknown is the agency of the divine.” He turns in his chair, looks out the window behind him. Trees are coming into leaf on the grounds below. “But something did occur—a miracle, if we read the papers. And a miracle is upsetting—by its nature, upsetting—and that upset requires an opportunity to heal.”
Outside the theater I am blinded in the midday light and stumble into a boy who’s placed himself squarely in the path of the exiting audience. His head is shaved and he wears a starched white shirt, and for a moment my heart stops before my vision clears, and he pushes a pamphlet into my hands. “Do you believe in Jesus?” he asks me.
I squint back at him. “What?”
“Do you believe in Jesus?” he asks again. He smiles, and the effect is to wipe Nick more firmly from my mind, brush his face away and replace it with this new one in just the way I once erased a scar from an inch of incised flesh. No music, no holy, hopeful glow, only the murmurs of the crowd that parts around us and fans out into the parking lot and the hard light of a summer afternoon, the light that must have made Lazarus blink back sharp tears as he awakened and, pulling the shroud away, stared uncomprehending at the crowd coming into focus before him.
I hand the pamphlet back. I know everything it could possibly say, and what it doesn’t say as well. “Of course,” I tell him as I shoulder past and find my car, relieved again to be unrecognized.
Who was the apostle Jesus loved? It wasn’t John. It was Lazarus, whom he sent ahead into death only to call him back again; Lazarus who made the journey first. And what did that love provide? A lifetime of doubt and discomfort. That is the miracle.
For more information on The Lorian Hemingway Competition go to www.shortstorycompetition.com