Where Everybody Knows Your Name
By Kathryn H. Ross
Vera woke with a start as if someone had shot off a gun. Above her, the blades of her ceiling fan were slowing to a stop. She looked around herself, bleary-eyed, and ran a hand over her face. Her skin was cold, and her nightshirt was wet, clinging to her skin. She shivered as she peeled it from herself, allowing the fabric to hang heavy from her narrow shoulders. Her room was dark save for the amber glow of a far-off streetlight creeping through her curtains. Reaching beneath her pillows, Vera retrieved her glasses and pushed them gently on her face. She glanced at her alarm clock to find it blank.
A heavy hush hung in the room; no whirring or clicking or buzzing or beeping. The blades of the ceiling fan had now come to a full stop, and they hung there motionless, a spread-eagled body forever free falling. The power had gone out and in its absence was quiet so complete it seemed to scream, a quiet so loud it had pulled her from her sleep. She reached for her phone and saw that it was a quarter after four and already sixty-eight degrees outside. Sunrise was about an hour off.
The room was hot and muggy and in the few moments since she had awoken, she could already feel wetness under her arms and on her brow. Kicking her covers off, Vera swung her legs to the floor and leaned forward, elbows to knees. She placed her cool hands to her face, lifting her glasses as she spread her fingers over her eyes. She tried to remember the dream she had been having but she couldn’t—it was a hundred paces ahead of her, fading in both sound and color as it hurried towards the fringes of her mind.
In the bathroom she splashed cold water on her face, ran a washcloth under her arms and wiped the sweat away from her chest and back. She stood for a moment, water running in the dark bathroom and felt goosebumps rising on her damp skin. Outside the sky rumbled, a distant rushing sound like a river tumbling over a cliff. Vera pressed a towel to her face, dried her skin, and applied a thin layer of lotion. Then, she stepped into a pair of sweats, a fresh tank top, and sat back on her bed. She waited, listening to the silence around her. She grabbed her phone and opened up her messages—the last person she had spoken to was her sister two days prior. Get some sleep, the last message said. I’ll come by soon. Vera thought for a moment of calling her, but she didn’t know what she would say, or if her sister would even pick up at this hour. She sat with her head in her hands, her glasses slipping down her nose, and exhaled. She stood, crossed the room to her closet and threw her jean jacket over her shoulders. Slipping her phone into her pocket, she draped her bag over her head and stepped into her sandals. She glanced at the analog clock in the hallway as she passed—4:45 am.
Shortly after five the sky collapsed. Faint droplets sprinkled themselves into Vera’s face and hair as she walked, gentle and light like dew dripping from the trees. Then the sky darkened, contracted, and loosed a shower of rain in such thick, warm torrents that it peppered the street with small shadows that become great rivers. Vera walked with her collar pulled up to her ears and her head down. She hadn’t thought to bring an umbrella or anything of the sort, and instead sought cover beneath the storefront awnings as she entered the downtown area, her bag held aloft. The bottoms of her sweats were now soaked, and her feet slipped in her sandals as she moved through the dark morning streets beneath the sudden summer squall. A slight gust was blowing, rattling the trees and pushing the rain sideways. Cars whizzed by, sending water flying in both directions as they passed, and the sidewalk glittered before her, catching the light from the lamps, cars, and storefronts in its slick mirrored face. She looked around, her heart beating fast as the storm roared and rumbled like an ancient beast. She tried to control her breathing, but all was so dark and warm and loud, creating an overwhelming chaos that jangled her nerves.
She hurried forward, glancing up only to ensure she wasn’t about to collide with a stranger or walk into traffic. The sound of the rain hitting the pavement was like hail on a tin roof. A car flew past and splashed her, and she suddenly couldn’t see. Vera pulled her glasses off and frantically wiped them against her sweats, but her clothes were now soaking wet, plastered to her body and sagging. Sighing, she put her glasses back on and squinted through the streaked frames: on the corner across the street, she could just make out a door standing wide open beneath a swinging street sign. The building was a dark mass that seemed to glimmer from within, its windows sparkling through the misty haze.
Vera paused beneath another storefront awning. She could turn back, give up this walk and head home, take a shower or a bath and get back in bed before her appointment—listen to some music or just read. She’d only wanted to clear her mind a bit with a quick turn around the neighborhood—she’d done it a thousand times when she couldn’t sleep—but the rain filled her thoughts with a swirling fog and she felt lost, unsure if she could make it back to her dim street and her small apartment at the end of the block. There was a clatter above her as another bout of thunder rumbled through the clouds and the torrent thickened, rain pouring down as if God himself were wringing out a sodden towel over the whole earth.
Vera did not know what time it was or how long she had been out. The sky was completely black save for the quick flashes of lightning that preceded each clash of thunder. The traffic light at the corner changed and she ran out from beneath the awning and into the road, hurrying through the crosswalk until she stepped on the opposite sidewalk. She slid on the pavement and fell forward, clinging to the post where the street sign swung on its hinges, whipping in the wind. Vera looked up and around; the walk signal became a blazing red hand, and the street was suddenly filled with early morning commuters trapped in the metal bellies of their cars, windshield wipers waving frantically to wick away the moisture from the unrelenting sky. Vera turned towards the open doorway behind her. The walk leading towards the mouth of the building was flanked with swaying trees that offered some cover from the storm, so she wrapped her jacket closely around her and ran up the walk, her slight figure nothing but a shadow moving through the dark until it disappeared.
Inside Vera found a man with tears in his eyes watching her, his head lifted to the sky. Hung with arms stretched, each clap of lightning showed the rain running down his stomach, legs, dripping from his toes, his skin depicted with amber panes of glass.
Vera gasped. She looked around, her eyes wide, and felt immediately that she shouldn’t be there. It was empty, desolate. The only signs of life were the raging storm outside and her own quick breaths that became amplified in the echoing chamber. She stood still against the heavy wooden door now closed behind her, unable to move further in or turn around and leave. With each flash of lightning the floor was painted a different color—pink, violet, red, gold, blue—lightning filtered through stained-glass windows. Pictures of saints flickered before her, projected across the room like bursts of old film. She knew them all, each window an old memory: Peter tearing his clothes. Mary standing back-to-back with Eve, one depicted with a halo, the other’s head bowed with an apple in her hand. Bright red glass. A snake curling around a tree. Judas reaching for thirty silver pieces. On the opposite wall, Elijah wrapped in flames, head lifted to heaven, drops of rain like diamonds in his eyes. David fighting the lion and the bear. Noah at the helm of the great arc, a bright white dove in vast blue sky. Moses dividing the sea, great panes of blue glass on either side of his small, rainbow figure. And Jesus was there watching her, sharp-eyed and suffering upon rough-hewn tree.
Vera whimpered, a sound so sudden and unanticipated that she clapped a hand over her mouth. Lightning sputtered beyond the windows, but the thunder didn’t sound. All was quiet as if the building had suddenly become sealed tight—no way for the outside to reach her. She thought of the sudden silence earlier that morning, how it had yanked her from sleep. The room seemed to be holding its breath. Slowly, Vera peeled herself from the door and took one timid step forward. The echo of her wet sandals on the hardwood floors bounced off the walls and the eyes of each stained-glass saint seemed to snap to her, aware of her presence and disturbance. She could feel her heart pounding and quickly thought, I’m okay, it’s okay—
“Is someone there?”
Vera froze. She stood, a small figure between the pews caught in the blue glow of one of the windows. The voice spoke again: “Is anyone there?”
From the opposite wall Vera saw a small, lumpy shadow moving through a thin doorway she hadn’t noticed before. She strained her eyes but could see nothing but the outline of what looked like a very tiny, stooped person coming towards her. Vera tried to speak, but all that came out was a small gasp that stuck in her throat. She tried again:
“I’m—I’m sorry. I got caught in the storm—”
The figure’s footfalls were light and gentle as if the person weighed nothing at all. As it came closer Vera watched carefully until the blue wash of the window illuminated an old man. He was dressed in brown work pants, a button down, and an oversized coat. Beneath his gray hat Vera could see flyaway hairs, white and wispy like cotton strewn across grass. His eyes were a milky brown—like coffee with too much milk—and his tanned face was gentle, concerned.
“Well, look at you,” the man said in a soft voice. He took Vera in with a few sweeping looks, head to toe and back again. Without another word he removed his coat and handed it to her. “Take this or you’ll catch a cold. Got caught in the storm you said?”
Vera stared for a moment and then reached for the coat. It was warm in her hands, and she suddenly realized how cold she was. She removed her sodden jean jacket and draped the coat over her shoulders, managing a small, “Yes.”
“Are you all right?” the man asked, peering at her.
Vera hugged herself and nodded again. “The storm came on kind of suddenly and I just needed somewhere to get out of it. I was taking a walk—I’m sorry if I’m trespassing—”
The man laughed. “Trespassing?”
“The door was open, and it was raining so hard so I just—”
“You can’t trespass here,” he interrupted, gently. “It’s all right. Listen.” He stepped forward and held out his hand. “Why don’t you have a seat and I’ll bring you something to eat and drink? I’ll get the lights on, too.” Before she could answer he had wrapped his hand around hers and was leading her towards the front of the church. As they stepped out of the blue glow he became a shadow again, but she could feel his warm, large hand enveloping hers and, though part of her wanted to snatch it away and run to the door, she fell into step with him.
The man helped her into the stiff front pew before the altar and then began lighting the candles that flanked the podium. As he worked, he spoke to her, his voice cheerful and slow.
“Wasn’t too surprised to see you here,” he was saying as he waved his match in the air to snuff it. “I get here early to empty the trash and straighten things up, get it ready for the day, you know, and I leave the door open. Sometimes people come in, you know, to pray or sit—and sometimes they don’t. I usually leave out water and snack foods—small things like fruit or crackers just in case. When it rains like this, I try to leave out umbrellas or ponchos or useful things like that. Of course, never had someone call quite so early, so there was nothing ready yet. I’d only just got here when I heard you moving around.”
Vera watched him. “What time is it?”
The old man glanced at his wrist. “Mm, looks like just a little before six. Have you been out long?”
Vera said nothing but continued to watch the man. She took in his small stature and thin limbs, bowed and gnarled by time. She watched his eyes when he turned to her—pale as they were they seemed to hold much within them, deep like the entrance to a winding cavern.
“Are you a priest?” Vera asked.
The man laughed out loud and shook his head. “Janitor,” he said, smiling over his shoulder. He came down from the altar and made his way to the opposite wall. Running his hand across it, a series of lights came on, flooding the sanctuary with a dim but comfortable glow.
“The power’s working,” she said, looking up. The old man nodded at her and smiled questioningly. “Oh,” Vera said, “it was out at my place—earlier.”
The old man raised his eyebrows again and nodded matter-of-factly. “Not surprised the way it’s raining,” he commented. He moved away then, towards the thin doorway he had emerged from and called to her: “Now, you sit tight, and I’ll be back.”
The church had become warm and comfortable in the light of the candles and the dim bulbs. The saints that watched Vera looked friendlier now and though she averted her eyes, the hanging figure of Jesus didn’t seem as startling as he had before. There was a patch of amber on the floor—watery gray daylight colored by the stained skin of Christ. The bright blue of the stained-glass sea had paled, and the other colors faded to mere pastels of themselves. Outside the rain had slowed to a steady drizzle. She could see water droplets sliding down the faces of the saints, but it now looked as if they were bathing, heads turned toward heaven in a graceful arc to receive the cleansing shower.
The old man prattled on before her, cheerfully drinking a cup of steaming coffee while she sipped from a water bottle he had brought her. There was a plate of crackers and cheese between them, and a fresh warm blanket he had found in a back closet was wrapped tight over Vera’s shoulders. The man was called Sebastian and when Vera had properly introduced herself, he smiled and told her she had a very pretty name.
“I started cleaning up here after I retired,” he said, chewing slowly on a cube of cheese. “My wife and I attended this church with our daughter but now she’s all grown up and all the old congregation is gone. Our friends, the elders—many of us are dead now, the children moved away to different cities.” He looked around the sanctuary and tilted his head back to take in the arched ceiling. “All gone,” he muttered.
Vera watched him, unsure of what to say. “You’re all alone,” she ventured. It was more a statement than a question and she shut her eyes, embarrassed by her bluntness. Sebastian glanced at her and nodded.
“My lovely wife is at home but…sometimes I am, yes,” he said. “You get lonelier as you get older.” They lapsed into sudden silence save for the sounds of sips and chewing. Vera felt another urge to leave, but it was as if she were stuck to the stiff wooden seat.
“I’m alone too,” she said suddenly. She held onto her water bottle. “I—I moved out here for school but I…” The words caught in her throat. Why was she offering this? She tried again: “But I couldn’t finish. I dropped out. I dropped out and I couldn’t go home.” She glanced at Sebastian, but his face was the same as it had been all this time—gentle and concerned, yet a little impassive. “But now I’ll probably have to.”
He watched her for a moment, and she looked away. “You don’t want to go home?”
Vera shook her head. “Well—I can’t.”
“They just,” she exhaled, feeling suddenly exhausted, “they put so much into me—rent me this place, pay for school, and I don’t even go. I get the check every month and there’s always some left over so I’ve been using it for… but they wouldn’t understand that. They call every week and I lie and afterwards I’m almost sick about it, but I keep doing it because it’s better than telling them I couldn’t… than letting them down.” Vera shook her head and wiped her face furiously. “I know it doesn’t make any sense,” she finished.
“What wouldn’t they understand?
Vera shook her head, saying nothing.
Sebastian shifted in his seat. “Don’t you think they miss you?”
Vera looked up. “What?”
“Your parents. You shouldn’t be scared to go home.”
“I… I didn’t say I was scared.”
They looked at each other for another moment before Vera turned her gaze to her knees. “No,” Sebastian conceded. “You didn’t.”
Silence settled around them again. Vera could feel the glass window eyes on her again, boring into her skull. She had a sudden urge to pull the blanket up and over her head until she was hidden and encased in darkness, unable to see or feel the eyes or Sebastian or the warmth of the candle flames.
Get some sleep; I’ll come by soon.
Vera shivered and took another sip of water for something to do. She felt she should apologize but she didn’t know why or how, and her mind turned to her sister and how she, Vera, hadn’t slept much at all since she had seen that last message. She wondered if the power was back on at her place and wished that she could crawl under her covers and turn on the television and forget for a while. Then she remembered that the television had been on the night before, that she had fallen asleep watching an old sitcom that her mother loved. It might’ve been the TV shutting off that woke her up—the sudden silence after a familiar drone. Would it be back on when she got home? Would it pick up right where it had left off before the electric currents died in the walls?
“I couldn’t push myself anymore,” Vera whispered. She looked up at Sebastian, who was still watching her. “I was so tired. I couldn’t write anymore or read anything else. I couldn’t talk to the people. I went to class one day, and I just started crying and I couldn’t stop. I felt so burnt out, but I couldn’t sleep—and I just couldn’t stop crying. It was like my head was going to explode or I was going to d-die or…” Her breath caught in her throat, and she buried her face in her hands. “I couldn’t go back after that,” she said through her fingers.
Sebastian said nothing. Around them all was silent except for her shaking sobs, loosed like rocks sliding down a mountain. She could still feel all the eyes watching as if they were waiting for something. Then, from somewhere above her, Sebastian moved and she suddenly felt the weight of his hand on her shoulder. She couldn’t look, but only shook beneath him, a leaf clinging to a tree. She could hear her breath loud in her ears—the gasping strain of her crying—in the classroom, her empty room, against the hard back of the pew. She held herself, wanting to place her own hands over the old man’s on her shoulder, but she kept them clenched into fists at her sides.
Sebastian was speaking, his voice low and smooth and soft. She couldn’t make out the words, but as he spoke the feeling of being watched intensified—Peter, Moses, David, Eve, Mary, Noah, Judas, Elijah, and Jesus— she was small and helpless, caught in their collective gaze. Vera was suddenly exposed, held in an x-ray beam that set her bones on fire. Sebastian spoke calmly and gently like her father when she was a child at bedtime begging for a story. Which one? David and Goliath? Daniel? He’d hold the Bible open in his lap and she’d request her favorites, and then he’d speak into her dreams, creating swirling images of flaming chariots and the heavens rolling back to reveal the starry host. Remember He loves you, Vera. Amen. Her father always said this at the end as she drifted off, drowsily clinging to prayer before she let sleep wash all the way over her. The voice speaking over her was her father’s, then Sebastian’s, until they became a single tone vibrating in her mind. The eyes held her paralyzed.
Vera shut her eyes tight and cried, her heart pounding within her. The warmth of Sebastian’s hand suddenly disappeared, and she knew she was alone, caught in the dark chamber where the lightning flashed beyond the windows, leaving bruises on the sanctuary floor. The rain beat against the windows like speeding bullets, but she couldn’t hear it. She looked around herself and saw that everything was suddenly black, all the windows darkened save for the one that held Jesus in amber. She looked at it, her gaze caught and held with His.
She gasped, sucking in the condensed air. Rain in His eyes. Was He really crying? Was He really crying from up there on His tree for her?
Vera opened her eyes and inhaled, catching her breath as she wiped her eyes and nose on her sleeves. It was quiet, and Sebastian was standing. The old man stretched and pressed his hands into his back. He looked at her and smiled sadly. He picked up the plate of leftover crackers and folded his coat—abandoned when he had brought the blanket—over his arm.
“So, how long has it been?”
Vera drew her knees to her chest. She swallowed, lifted her glasses, and wiped her eyes again. “I,” Vera started, her voice watery, “I quit before the end of first year. But…” She shook her head and Sebastian raised his eyebrows. “But I told them I needed to stay for the summer... just made something up… And now it’s August and they’re asking about tuition and—”
“And then you got caught in the rain.” His voice was gentle, almost sad.
Sebastian turned away and looked at the windows. He was washed in the amber light.
“You remind me of my daughter,” he said finally, turning back to her. “Look a little like her too, when she was your age. Rosa.” His milky eyes roved over her face, taking in her dark eyes and hair. “It’s been such a long time since I saw her. I’ve been thinking about her a lot.” He pointed to the space beside Vera and tried to smile. “We used to sit right here on Sunday mornings. I remember it like it was yesterday, but it was so long ago.”
Vera stared at him; her chest was tight.
“It was something stupid,” he said quietly. Vera waited, but he didn’t speak again. Then: “I hope you don’t mind the prayer,” he said. He removed his hat and ran his hand through his cotton hair. “I should have asked first but I just thought… well, I felt—” He shook his head, a little embarrassed. “Sometimes it’s like they’re speaking to me.” He glanced at the windows. “And they were all yelling about you just now. I didn’t use to listen before, but I know they’ve been yelling for years.”
Vera stared, first at Sebastian and then, timidly, at the windows. She let out a shaky breath as her eyes moved from each scene and came finally to rest on the old man. Small and stooped as he was, he seemed to have grown before her. He placed his hat back on his head and put his hand on her shoulder. Behind him shadows moved beyond the windows and the eyes, filled with fresh rain and the beginnings of dawn, seemed to smile.
The sky was patchy as Vera made her way home and the air was still warm and damp. The thick, black storm clouds had lightened and dispersed so that pockets of blue began appearing here and there, punctuated by gleaming beams of sun that baked the pavement below. Vera walked with her jacket tied around her waist and her sweatpants rolled up to her knees. She was sweating in the wet heat, but as she moved she hardly noticed it. She was thinking of Sebastian, of the last thing he had said to her before she left:
You’re going to be okay, Vera.
She had smiled when he said this, but something about the tone of his voice made her feel odd. In that moment she became both afraid and certain that she would never see Sebastian again. It was as if everything since leaving home was leading to meeting the old man, and now that she had, this life would disappear. She half wondered if she would wake up in her bed at home as a child again, claiming she had dreamed of the future. Her mother would comment on her imagination and her father would ask her questions, urging her to construct her dream world into a new reality. Vera shook her head—it was something she’d have to tell her therapist, at any rate. But—she thought with a sick and sinking feeling—this would have to be her last session. She couldn’t put the money there anymore.
She checked her phone for the time and saw that she had less than two hours to get to her appointment, and below that, several missed calls. She frowned. Pulling the call log down with a swipe of her finger, she saw that three calls were from her sister, two were from an unknown number, and one was from home.
Vera froze, her hand trembling slightly. A message popped up, illuminating her home screen: Tried calling but no answer. Be at your place in 20.
She stared at the message for so long that the screen went black.
Vera burst into her apartment and closed the door heavily behind her. She hurried to the sink, ripped off her glasses, and turned on the water. Cupping her hands, she caught the stream in her palms and let it run until she was holding an icy pool that dripped through the spaces between her fingers. She splashed her face and patted her neck and arms. The sudden cold shocked her, slowing her heart and allowing her to breathe more regularly. She panted over the sink, water still running into the stainless-steel basin, and felt sweat and tap water intermingling on her skin. Bowing her head, Vera thought of her sister’s message and the call logs. She thought of Sebastian, how he had stood washed in that amber light just an hour or so before and the weight of his old, withered hand on her shoulder. Instinctually she reached up, wanting to close her hand over his, but flesh collided with bone.
The rushing faucet was loud in her ears, so she shut it off, watching as the water swirled in a perfect spiral before slipping down the drain. She stayed there, bent over the sink, her breaths shallow and slow. All was quiet around her until, faint but unmistakable, Vera heard voices.
She raised her head slowly, listening hard. The noise was muffled but also loud; she wondered how she hadn’t noticed it before. Grabbing a towel from the counter, Vera dried her face and arms as she made her way down the hall. She put her glasses back on. The voices grew louder but stayed subdued, punctuated by laughter here and there. Her bedroom door stood ajar and from within it she could hear a jangling sound. She approached slowly, cautiously, then reached out and pushed her bedroom door all the way open. The television was on, halfway through a rerun of Cheers. The fan was wobbling on its hinges and there was a faint buzzing noise coming from the clock.
Vera let out a breath she didn’t know she’d been holding. She stepped inside, shut off the TV, crossed the floor and sank onto her bed, elbows to knees. Beyond her window the sun faded in and out as the clouds drifted across the sky. She closed her eyes and tried to remember the dream she had been having early that morning, but all she could see in her mind’s eye were flashes of amber and rain. She heard Sebastian again, but his voice was changed somehow:
You’re okay, Vera.
“I’m okay,” Vera whispered, exhaling through fingers.
Then, as if in response, there was a knock at the door at the same moment sunlight bled through the curtains.