The beach pastor parked his twelve-year-old Chrysler on the street, windows and doors open, so that the squirrels had free run of the picnic items and Bibles inside. Sometimes a squirrel left the car dragging a whole package of hotdogs. Sometimes one caught the attention of a passing dog. Hence the car was a wreck, and Pastor Bob developed a dislike for dogs.
Lately, he’d developed a dislike for pastoring, too. He was sure the people were coming for the food, which was packed by his wife, Melba, in huge containers, coleslaw in gallons, potato chips in bags the size of pillow cases. Secretly, Melba agreed. But they never discussed the situation, each believing that the other needed to believe in Pastor Bob’s mission. In truth, Melba reveled in the praise for her salads, mandarin orange and marshmallow, boiled egg and pickles; she watched the service from afar, counting forks.
Reflexively, Pastor Bob surveyed his ragtag group. Some were already palming pretzels they’d grabbed from the picnic table. Forgive them all (the failed plumbers, gamblers, even the insurance salesmen) he thought, crossing the park to a spit of sand near the ocean-like lake. But he hadn’t heard from God lately and wondered if his father had been right: he would have been more use as a janitor.
Surely he deserved a sign, didn’t he? Ever since he lost his indoor congregation years ago, along with his first wife, he’d ministered to various flocks in parks and parking lots, and suffered in winter, hounded by visions of his hapless people wandering through sub-zero weather he could not stop. He hated ice and dog-stained snow, also his aluminum-sided ranch house and much of Melba’s cooking. But he trudged on. That should count for something, he told God. Persistence was something. Wasn’t it?
He was about to say “Amen,” blessing the service, when a man started shouting, running in a panicked circle, yelling at the hungry congregation, yelling at the lake. His black dog was caught in a riptide. The owner dove in after the dog. The splashing, roaring lake surged, and the dog thrashed. Waves churned in the wrong direction. The dog went under.
Where was the owner?
“There!” someone shouted, pointing to what might have been a human head bobbing. Pastor Bob ran toward the shoreline. He was just behind Jesus, one of his congregants, whose name had proved awkward for the pastor, until he opted for the man’s nickname, Chuy. But it was Tyson who plunged in first. Tyson had once been a lifeguard but fell from God during a summer in Texas, where the cocaine was cheap. He’d lost a child that summer, in a pool of jumping, screaming, squirming kids, and had only recently found solace in Pastor Bob’s ministry.
But Pastor Bob didn’t know this. His policy had always been No questions. Now he watched as Tyson struggled with the owner and the dog, with legs and paws, heads and foam. Pastor Bob shouted, “Swim the other way! Swim past the head!” But he didn’t know if Tyson knew what the head of a riptide was, so he, too, dove into the roiling Great Lake waves, and let a current rip him from shore. Pastor Bob’s clothes swelled, and his head stung, and his muscles stiffened.
It felt like a fight, and he was never sure who he was tugging, pushing, shouting to. Air was hard to get. Pulled down into dark, merciless water, he met suffocating dog fur in the face. Sometime before, the pastor had tried to rank his own personal hells. His father’s slap after the early bender that had caused him to miss his mother’s funeral. The face of his first wife when she caught him sinning with her Avon lady. His own son on the prison phone, unrepentant and jeering, Preacher? Some preacher! This liquid hell was beyond ranking.
He swallowed air and water, looked for Tyson, went under. What now? What if he gave up, pulled out of the struggle? The murky problem of who was who and who was viable would be simpler. Don’t persist: Give in. Do it, let go, give up: He pulled away from the snarl, sinking deeper, slicing his lungs with emptiness, merging seamlessly, he thought, with an outbound current, until he cracked his back against a sea wall.
He felt himself going up, not wanting to, not wanting air, not wanting sound, and feeling insulted by the slap of surface waves. The air pierced. The sky too. He couldn’t see Tyson or the owner or the dog, only gray waves rapping at him, taunting.
Then he touched bottom, but he wasn’t walking, he was being dragged. He felt many hands. Melba pulled so hard his shoulders yanked out of place. Comments flew: someone still out there.
“Let go of me!” he sputtered. “Get them.”
But Melba was pounding his chest. She was also chattering about chopped celery, red onions, and macerated fruit, a nervous habit of hers, as if her recipes could cure anything amiss. He’d once pointed out, “That’s what prayer is for.”
She’d cocked her head, apparently doubting this stab at belief. “Really?”
Someone took over the CPR. Fools. Why not save Tyson or the owner? “No!” the pastor whined, his mind riding the wail of sirens. “Someone else!” Wasn’t anyone listening?
“Jello,” Melba persisted.
Straps tightened over his chest. The ambulance attendants smelled like disinfectant.
“Who’s out there?”
No answer. The dog licked him.
“It’s a shame we don’t get to choose who we save,” Roy Thatcher, former gambler, observed.
As if in answer, Jamal Jeffers, former bluesman, started to sing. Chuy joined in. Then Tyson and the owner. The pastor felt the last of himself rise up on the stretcher into white sky wafting with the smell of Melba’s burning hotdogs.
“Overcooked,” she said.
“Oxygen!” someone yelled.
“Prayer,” the pastor tried to say, his unmoving lungs awash in smoke and also deep wonder at himself.
Notes from Guest Reader Andrew R. Mitchell
I chose ‘Pastor Bob’s Picnic’ because of its wonderful, weird momentum: it packs so much character and humor into a small space. Long story short: I was moved by this piece, which seems to be about those little crises of faith that can accumulate as we move through our lives—faith in ourselves, faith in our loved ones, faith in the world around us, etc.—and how these accumulations can slowly change us or wound us or (sometimes) guide us toward something epiphanic. In the throes of his spiritual torpor, Pastor Bob is still striving for meaning, for hope, and I found myself thinking about him long after I’d finished the story.