Rock of the Lamb
Will and Marie were married right after college. In their fourth year of marriage, they had a son. When he was eight, they divorced. Marie found an executive job in California and moved there, leaving the father and son in Ohio. Since the divorce, their son Ben spent holidays and most of the summer with Marie, and lived out the school year with Will. Marie and Will prided themselves on their civility, and Ben was proving to be a good kid.
When Ben was 10, he made a friend named Frank. Like Ben and his father, the male Randalls were just the two of them, although in their case, it was because Mrs. Randall had died young of cervical cancer. Ben liked spending time at Frank’s house because Frank’s father always cooked fancy dinners like baked chicken with mashed sweet potatoes (not the white potatoes) and real green beans with onions in them, big pieces of onion and also bacon. Frank had been over a few times and Ben felt embarrassed when his own father made dinner for the three of them: omelets or frozen chicken pot pies.
One Saturday night, Ben spent the night at the Randalls’ house and went to church with them in the morning. Without Ben around, Will found little to do: cleaning the bathroom and the fridge, Sudoku and Word Jumbles. When the Randalls’ minivan dropped off Ben on Sunday afternoon, Will cut up cheese and laid out Triscuits and asked him, “How’d you like church?”
He shrugged. “It was okay. Took a long time.”
“Did you sing? Did you like the singing?”
He nodded. “Yeah, I liked that. It’s just the same as when we do it in school. Different songs, though.”
“What sort of songs?”
Ben thought. “Um, I guess there was one that went like this.” And there in the kitchen, he planted his small feet and sang:
My Jesus, I go unto Thee
Believin’ in the rock of the lamb
How deep the Father’s love for me,
Lamb of God, Son of Man.
To his knowledge, Will had never heard his son really sing before, only hum or shout out songs at scout camps. Ben had a natural, girlish voice. Will was moved. “You have a beautiful voice,” he told his son.
“Yeah, I like singing at school,” Ben said. In that moment, Will saw Ben exactly how a father wants to think of his son: A good boy, beautiful voice. Loved by his teachers. A good boy. This was before Ben’s mistake, before his run-in with the cops, before Will realized that for everyone, even his own son, the world eventually gets at you, talks you into bad ideas.
About a month after that weekend, Ben and another boy prank-called Child Protective Services, pretended to be Frank, and reported that Mr. Randall hit him. On the day Ben made his mistake, a policeman had come to his school to give a talk. The policeman, Officer Buchannon, talked about what to do when parents hit you or when someone touches you in a way that makes you feel bad. Officer Buchannon was jowled and silly, using his hands to talk to one another as if they were sock puppets, but they weren’t, he was just using his bare hands. Ben’s teacher nodded enthusiastically sometimes and at other times made a purposefully serious face. Officer Buchannon gave out tiny cards with numbers to call when these things happened. The same afternoon, at his friend Kenny’s house, before Kenny’s mother got home from work, Ben and Kenny made fun of Officer Buchannon. Kenny got the idea to telephone Child Protective Services from their little cards and pretend to be someone at school.
“Let’s say we’re Frank,” Kenny said.
“Okay,” Ben said. He didn’t want Kenny to know that he and Frank were friends, that Frank had been to his house, that he had been to Frank’s house, that he had sang songs in church with the Randalls. He was embarrassed of his friendship with tubby, anxious Frank who got nervous a half-hour into playing with Legos, saying, “Shouldn’t we do our homework real quick?” Frank who took ten minutes, twenty minutes to fill out one worksheet, fretting over each question, scrawling answers in his illegible baby handwriting.
It was Ben who placed the call. He dialed the number from the card and said, “Hello, this is Frank Randall? A policeman came to school today. He said that if my dad hit me, I should call this number.” His heart raced and the operator said, “Honey, I’m going to get you over to someone who can help. A real policeman. Can you stay on the line, honey?”
“Yes, ma’am, I can wait. My dad’s not home yet,” Ben said. On hold, he and Kenny listened to the recorded music and laughed, his right ear and Kenny’s left ear against the phone. They were getting a real policeman! When Officer Buchannon got on the phone, he said, “Hey, buddy. Is this Frank? I’m here, Frank.”
“Officer, my dad hits me,” Ben said. Kenny was lying in the corner of the lower bunk, stifling his laughter with a pillow. “I believe you, Frank,” Officer Buchannon said. “Does your dad hit you a lot? Could you tell me about that?”
Ben said, “My dad hits me every day. Could you come get me? My dad will be home from work soon.” He knew when Mr. Randall would be home, just after five, an hour earlier than his own father came home.
“Sure, Frank. I’m going to come over right now. Can you tell me your address?”
Ben said, “It’s 1317 Madison Court.” He repeated it: “1317 Madison Court.” He knew the address by heart because he’d helped guide his father there a few times. Kenny didn’t ask how come he knew Frank’s address from memory.
“Great, Frank. Can you stay on the phone with our operator while I drive to your house? Just want to make sure you’re safe, buddy.”
Ben panicked. “I think my dad is home. I can’t stay on the line. I have to go now.”
Officer Buchannon: “I’m headed over right now. Don’t hang up. I’ll be there in five minutes, buddy, okay? No matter what, I’ll be there in five minutes. Stay calm.”
“He’s coming in the door now! I have to go,” Ben said and hung up the phone. He and Kenny laughed themselves into hysterics. Such a prank! They had pulled such a prank.
After the call, Ben and Kenny left the house and went to hide in the bushes in a vacant lot across from the Randalls’ to see what happened. Ben saw the flashing lights of a cop car in the Randalls’ driveway. He saw Officer Buchannon pound on the door. Frank emerged and recognized Officer Buchannon, but he was scared from the intrusion and from Officer Buchannon’s aggressive questions, which he didn’t understand—“Are you okay? Where’s your father? Are you hurt?”
Two other cars flashing lights pulled up in front of the house. From where he stood, Ben saw Mr. Randalls’ car driving slowly as it turned the corner onto the cul-de-sac. He was close enough to the road that he could see Mr. Randalls’ relaxed face as he drove down street, and his eyes widen and his mouth open at the sight of the cop car, lights flashing, in his driveway. He saw Mr. Randalls’ face express terror, and he realized—somehow, he was so young, it was an instinct—that Mr. Randall thought something bad had happened to Frank. Mr. Randalls’ car sped up. Ben saw other officers, not Officer Buchannon, strangers, walk toward Mr. Randalls’ car with palms held up, heard them yell, “Sir! Stop the car. Mr. Randall! Stop the car.” An officer made Mr. Randall exit his car. Mr. Randall spread his arms on the hood and the officer patted down his legs. Mr. Randall yelled, “My son! What’s happened to my son?” Officers talked into the little radios on their shoulders, calling to each other. One cop seemed to spot Ben and Kenny in the bushes, and started to walk toward where they crouched.
Ben felt sick, like running but couldn’t move, and he felt Kenny tense up next to him and knew that Kenny wanted to flee. He grabbed Kenny’s arm and said, “Wait, we have to stay,” and as two officers started to walk toward the vacant lot, he said, “Kenny, stand up,” gripped Kenny’s shirtsleeve, and stood up from behind the bushes.
After his son’s mistake, Will and his ex-wife had many phone conversations about the incident. “He didn’t quite understand how severe his actions were,” Will said.
Marie was furious—at Will. In her eyes, he was the culpable one. “How could he not understand?” she said. “I mean, at Christmas, Thanksgiving, when he’s here he’s like, a regular kid, and then when he’s with you he goes off and does something like this.”
“We shouldn’t be too hard on him. He already understands what he’s done,” Will said. Will knew the depth of Ben’s remorse; he had been miserable since he’d first laid eyes on him in the police station. To Will, the whole mistake was an accident of youth, a terrible misunderstanding, foolish, but not malicious, and largely Kenny-influenced.
Marie suggested he take their son to church, which he balked at—“What is that supposed to teach him? Guilt? I don’t think so”—but the mother kept on, arguing that it might provide structure, quiet time for thinking, perhaps some social norms. Will gradually understood Marie’s subtext, unspoken but present in her reasoning: She didn’t think Will was a good moral teacher. When Will picked up on what she wasn’t saying, he felt insulted; he considered himself a good example. He spoke up when undercharged at restaurants and left nice tips for waitresses, good and bad. He avoided saying negative things about his ex-wife and co-workers in front of his son. Another example: Once he had nicked a car in a tight parking lot, and he and Ben stayed at the scene for an hour to wait for the car’s driver—a teenage girl who emerged from a clothing store with shopping bags on both arms. Will gently apologized and explained the small scrape. The girl started to cry in a dramatic way. Will comforted her and instructed her to call her parents. He spoke to them briefly, gave his phone number and other information, and in a week’s time sent them a check for three hundred dollars. A bum deal, he was sure, three hundred dollars for a scrape—not a dent—but he paid it, letting his son see him write the check.
“You have to fess up if you make mistakes,” Will had told Ben, ripping the check from the booklet. “There’s no shame in it.”
Ben seemed receptive. “Isn’t that kind of a rip-off?”
Will tried to smile in a kind way, but not in a way that encouraged his son’s line of thinking although he agreed. “Maybe it’s a little expensive, but there wouldn’t be a scrape at all if it weren’t for me, see? I’m responsible here.”
On the phone, Will didn’t bring up the scrape and the check to Marie, who insisted that there was nothing wrong with a little spiritual education. Will wanted to tell her that a spiritual education wasn’t the same thing as a moral one, but she had exhausted him and so he agreed to the plan. “He does like the singing,” he said.
Three years ago when Marie requested to be his ex-wife, Will wasn’t surprised but he was devastated. He had known for years that Marie wasn’t fully happy but he’d at least trusted her consistency, her devotion if not to him then to their relationship, to their investment in a life together. At the time, they were in their mid-thirties; their son was seven years old; surely they’d picked their lot, Will figured. He’d considered divorce once or twice, but he imagined it as a mutual decision years away or never. At heart, he believed they could keep co-existing, doing their taxes, meeting with friends, mildly arguing with one another, making love on anniversaries, New Year’s, Valentine’s Day, the occasional Tuesday. He assumed that, like him, Marie valued this comfort over the risk of trying to start something new, something foreign. He hadn’t imagined she’d gone so far away from him in her inner life to sidesweep him like that. When he saw that she still wanted romantic fervor and believed she could have it, he felt embarrassed for himself. During the years they’d had a child and worked their full-time jobs, he’d atrophied and she’d been alive. He granted her request after a few weeks.
Will decided to take Ben to the same church that the Randalls’ went to, figuring that at the very least, it would show Mr. Randall that he and his son weren’t heathens, weren’t bad seeds. Before church, Will explained to Ben that the two of them might learn something new, both of them. “When you make mistakes—the bigger kind of mistakes—sometimes it’s good to show people that you’re trying to change,” he told Ben, who understood this in a vague way, an understanding of cause-and-effect, mistake-then-church, but not the logic behind it.
And so the father took his son to church, the two of them together in church for the first time. Will held Ben’s shoulder lightly as they walked up the granite steps to the doors of the First Presbyterian. They were ten minutes early; families in the lobby talked and ate cheap donuts from an open box. Mr. Randall saw Will, and Will gave a nod which Mr. Randall returned. Will guided his son to the back of the church.
They scooted into a back pew. A woman leaned over: “Do y’all have a program? I have extras.” She handed them a white photo-copied sheet, jaggedly cut, with a list on it.
Ben reached for the hymnal in the wooden holder in front of them. “I’ll find the first song,” he whispered. He found the page number, the right song title.
The church filled up with families and old people in pairs, and old people with younger people, perhaps their daughters or sons. Will saw Mr. Randall and Frank seat themselves near the front of the church. The organ began to play. The preacher came on stage from a side door and went to the podium with its little nub of a microphone. He smiled and called out to the congregation, “We praise your goodness, O God,” and they responded with words printed in the program.
Will didn’t read the prayer aloud but he held the paper low and followed the text with his finger for himself and his son. He wasn’t sure he would be able to match the rhythm of the prayer; he didn’t want his voice to stick out or carry on longer.
“He has kept our feet from slipping,” everyone said. “Let us call to the Rock of our salvation. We are the people of His pasture, the flock under His care.”
“Blessed be,” the preacher said. “Blessed be,” said everyone around them. The congregation sat.
The preacher read a long passage of scripture. The congregation followed along in their Bibles. Will watched to see if his son would immediately get bored, but Ben sat and watched the preacher patiently, and Will was proud of that, and eventually the congregation stood to sing.
With the first hymn, Will heard again his son’s lovely voice. It rose above the other voices around him, perfectly in tune. He was proud of his son’s voice and lack of hesitation. Will sang at a medium volume. He had taken piano lessons as a boy, and so he knew how to follow music, simple tunes like this one, just fine.
As they sang the hymn, Ben heard, for the first time to his knowledge, his father’s singing. His father had a solid voice, not loud and tuneless like Mr. Randalls’ voice. He was glad he couldn’t hear Mr. Randalls’ voice now, and he was glad that he was sitting out of ear-shot from Mr. Randall. The last time Ben heard his voice, Ben felt embarrassed for him. Or, really, he felt proud of Mr. Randall, for being a bad singer but singing anyway, and so it was really like his heart broke for him. That’s what it was: heartache at the thought of anyone making fun of Mr. Randall for singing at church with a voice like that.
Side-by-side with his son, Will remembered the moments when he had felt a sudden stab of being deeply happy as a father, shock at his love for his son. Like the time Will went to pick him up from preschool, a task usually reserved for Marie but she’d been kept late at an appointment. Will walked into the classroom with its miniature chairs. Ben yelled, “My DAD!” and wrapped his arms around his father’s neck, placed his head which smelled like cornflakes, syrup, under his father’s chin. Will had chatted with the teacher for just a few moments, accepting a tote bag with the boy’s things, while Ben clutched his torso. Or like the first time, the only other time his son had gotten in trouble, for writing in crayon on the sidewalks outside the school, Will had been the one able to leave work, to come down when the principal called.
“I mean, is this not your son’s handwriting?” the principal had asked him as they stood outside, surveying the damage.
“Yes it is,” Will said; he could easily recognize it. He knew his son’s handwriting well. It’s funny, he had thought, you think all kids write badly, the same, and then you have your own kid and you know his handwriting so well you can pick it out on a sidewalk in green crayon in giant letters across the pock-marked concrete. “Yes, I’m sure.” Ben’s graffiti read in capital letters MOM DAD TEACHER SCHOOL CAT DOG.
“In His name, we pray,” the preacher said. The congregation bowed their heads to recite the Lord’s prayer. Will remembered this prayer word for word, found himself reciting it from memory, from a long-untapped pocket of his mind. He wondered how he’d ever memorized this prayer enough to know it like this; he’d not gone to church since he was Ben’s age.
“Give us this day our daily bread, and forgive us our trespasses,” Ben said with the congregation. Will heard his son reciting the prayer and marveled that they both knew this prayer in the same way, foreign and yet ingrained.
Will followed along in the program, and the next section was Call to Confession. The organist played while everyone knelt at the pews and people in the congregation walked up before the preacher’s podium. Will did not expect this sort of demonstration from his son; in fact, he would have preferred that Ben sit tight. This Call to Confession made him nervous because he remembered, in his childhood, going to church camp with a friend, and after three days of late nights whispering with other campers and early morning church-services, he became emotional from sleep deprivation and wandered up during the call to confession. Afterward, there had been a counselor who sat with him for an hour, encouraging young Will to give his life to Jesus. Will didn’t want the same bewilderment, the same hang-over of coercion, to affect his son. Will wondered whether he should make some sort of comforting gesture, to communicate to Ben that he need not go to the front of the church. He did nothing and Ben sat quietly.
While people walked up to the front, Ben worried that his father was disappointed in him. That was why they were here in church, he was sure. Imagining his father’s disappointment caused a deep clenching in Ben’s lower stomach. This feeling was bad, but not as bad as the one Ben got when he remembered Mr. Randalls’ face—the terrified face Mr. Randall made when he saw the cop cars. When Ben remembered Mr. Randalls’ face like that, he felt like falling over, his hurt was so immense. After the incident, Ben cried nearly every night in his room or at dinner, and when his father asked why he was crying, he couldn’t explain. “I feel bad for Mr. Randall,” he’d say. Will would gently press him for elaboration, but Ben’s throat would close, he’d be too upset, he couldn’t respond. Will never pushed Ben further. Decades later, Ben would have enough distance from that feeling to dissect it, to recognize it as one of his first strong moments of empathy. The human brain is wired for it; Mr. Randalls’ expression fired up mirror neurons in Ben’s developing brain, connecting the image with his own father, and faster than a second, he understood a father’s fearing for his son.
When the people returned to their seats, the preacher rested for a moment. Will saw the programs come out again.
“I believe in Jesus Christ, His only Son,” the congregation said in unison. Will and Ben waited. They didn’t know this recitation. “He ascended into heaven and is seated at the right hand of the Father,” said the congregation. “I believe in the forgiveness of sins, the resurrection of the body.” Will and Ben said “Amen” along with everyone else. Funny, Will thought; anyone knows when to say Amen. When something was over, you said Amen. Will looked over at the Randalls, feeling a rush of goodwill, and hoped that Mr. Randall would look back at him. But Mr. Randalls’ head firmly faced the front of the church.
A gold tray with tiny beige wafers passed down each pew. Ben took the gold tray and picked one up, small as a tablet like a piece of medicine. It tasted like nothing, like white bread or like the back of his hand. He knew that the tablet was a symbol for flesh, Jesus’ flesh, but didn’t know exactly why they were to eat it.
After the first gold tray came a second gold tray with little holes in it holding plastic cups full of dark liquid—grape juice, Ben knew, from his last time at church. Will helped him with the tray, and they each took a plastic cup. Like at the dentist’s office, the father thought, and the son thought. When everyone else drank from the small cups, they did too.
Several high-school boys in khaki pants with small black trash bags walked down the aisles, collecting the plastic cups. Together, Will and Ben collected the cups passed to them, and stacked and passed their own cups down the row.
The organ started up and Ben opened the hymnal to the next song. “Look!” he mouthed to his father. It was the same hymn he’d sung last time at church. The congregation sang:
My Jesus, I go unto Thee
Believin’ in the rock of the lamb
How deep the Father’s love for me,
Lamb of God, Son of Man.
The woman next to them sang her heart out, loudly, from deep in her diaphragm like an opera singer. She trilled the “r”—rrrrrock of the lamb—with such sincerity and intensity that Will wanted to laugh. He noticed his son didn’t seem to notice the woman, how funny she was. My son knows better than to laugh, he thought, feeling proud again. Ben heard the woman sing and felt embarrassed for her, in just the same way he’d felt about Mr. Randall.
As the last chords of the electric organ died down, the members of the congregation put their hymnals back into the wooden holders on the pews in front of them. The preacher began the sermon. Will tuned out the sermon almost immediately, but he kept his eyes trained on the preacher and made a concentrating face.
Will’s mind wandered. He reminded himself to call Marie later that afternoon to let her know they’d gone to church. Had he and Marie ever gone to church together? Maybe they’d been once, for a wedding. He didn’t remember whose wedding but he did remember the light blue dress she wore. He permitted himself, as he rarely did, to imagine himself and Marie when they’d first met as sophomores in college, how fantastic their love once was, its passion, the thrilling contentedness of waking up with her in his arms, her hair on his face and their legs mixed in the twin bed of one of their dorm rooms. The slap-happiness of a mild hangover, sleeping too late and waking to the sun coming through the blinds at 11 a.m., looking at her desk and reading the titles of books for her Poetry and Social Movements class while she stirred beside him. He’d wanted to read those books cover-to-cover simply because she’d read them. In those days she wore skirts and a strapless bra underneath her tank tops in the summers. He remembered viscerally her lower thigh underneath his hand, underneath a table top at a Mexican restaurant; the smoothness of her waxed and lotioned young leg under his own young hand, which had not yet grown dark hair on its knuckles. As he feigned listening, thinking of Marie, he felt his own youth at that time, their mutual nineteen-ness, the joy of going to class and taking drives from campus into surrounding towns, talking in an uninformed but cocky way about philosophy with friends until four in the morning, and on the way home, making love to her, his beautiful girlfriend, his some-day wife, in his car with the windows rolled down in a grocery-store parking lot. Once, the two of them had made love this way and then exited out of opposite passenger doors to re-enter the car in the front seat. They’d laughed and laughed about this formality, and when they’d quieted from laughing, he tucked her hair behind her small pretty ear and started the car back up in a natural, confident way. After he tucked her hair and started that car, shifting smoothly into gear, he marveled at his own abilities, the way everything worked perfectly, and he loved her for drawing this out of him.
Will glanced at his knuckles, his hands clasped together in ostensible prayer. He grasped a mental image of his body as it was now, nipple hair graying, chicken legs with loose-skinned thighs, a slowly arriving potbelly (not yet, but beginning, with a softness around the belly button and on both sides of the pelvis).
He saw his body come home at the end of the day, saw himself being curt with his son and then buffering his post-work frustration with a few minutes alone in his room to change his clothes. Pulling his dress pants off by tugging at the cuffs, putting on shorts. Will’s gentleness always returned; when he came back out of his bedroom, he would say to his son, “I’m sorry I was short with you. What is it that you need?” He would go into the kitchen, saying, “You hungry for supper?”
The father watched this movie of himself and thought This is how my son sees me. He saw himself in shorts and flip-flops in the kitchen making omelets for supper. They were not even omelets; he couldn’t make a good omelet, he just made something like a flat sheet of scrambled eggs, browned to a crisp on the bottom and a few seconds past runny on the top. He saw a sack of a man displaying self-control and patience but little else, settling into the mild space between happy and not, aging mutely like a nun before his son’s eyes.
This image of himself, of his son’s experience of him, made him want to kneel. The preacher concluded his sermon. The congregation seemed to pause or inhale, and moved to its knees without murmuring—perhaps in deep concentration, or with relief that it would be over soon. Will and his son knelt. In his mind’s eye, Will saw himself and his son side-by-side. He wanted his son to remember the good things about his father, the better parts of being alive.
As the father and the son knelt, the father stole little looks at the son. The preacher said, “Let us pray.”
Rebecca Evanhoe was born in Wichita, KS. She earned a BA in chemistry from the University of Kansas, and an MFA from the University of Florida. Her work appears in Harper’s Magazine, Gulf Coast, Vice, Gigantic, Bat City Review, and elsewhere. She lives in Gainesville, FL.