A drop of water fell on my knee, and I looked up to the drafty vaulted ceiling. This was in 1992 a few years before St. Augie’s would get renovated. It had started raining outside, and the ceiling was beginning to leak. I shifted my weight to my right hip. Whenever it rained, Grandma Bauer would always tell me that one day the Maumee River was going to flood and wash Napoleon, Ohio right off the map.
The priest stood, sweat dripping down his forehead. A boy in a white robe, Dennis, was holding up what I assumed was the largest and oldest Bible in the world for Father Roy to read from. I went to school with Dennis, and I knew his thumbs curved backwards further than anyone’s in our class. We all suspected holding the Bible was to blame.
The reading described the end of the world: “Two womdiven will be grinding oat at the mill; one will be taken and one left.”
I shifted my weight again, staring down at my folded hands. I imagined sitting in school next to Jenna and a hole opening up under half the classroom, sending us all plummeting to Hell where I would never see my family again and be tortured for eternity with broken arms and purple nurples. Jenna’s face grew smaller and smaller as I hurtled away from her.
Years later, Jenna would disappear off the face of the earth, and years after that, I myself would end up submerged in the Maumee River.
Father Roy moved behind the lectern for the Homily, relieving Dennis. That day, Father Roy had chosen to recount the story of a woman who confessed to an abortion on her death bed.
“And folks, let me tell you, it was a good thing she decided to share this awful tragedy at the end of her life because without confession, she would have never made it into the Kingdom of God.” I dug my fingers in between my knuckles until the tips turned white and my knuckles were sore. Something I learned very early on was that the prospects of getting into heaven seemed to be very slim, even with confession, and at eight years old, I felt I had no hope of making the cut.
At my Confirmation, I was afraid that the minute Father Roy anointed me I would be engulfed in flames. I knew that sort of thing didn’t happen in 1996, but I had kissed Jenna behind the bleachers, and she had kissed me back, hard, and bit my lip. I figured God didn’t condone that sort of thing. I hadn’t been to confession beforehand like Pat Webber had recommended in our Confirmation classes. I didn’t go because I didn’t regret it, and confession doesn’t count if you plan to do it again.
“Jude, be sealed with the gift of the Holy Spirit.”
I squeezed my eyes shut, awaiting flames and gasps from onlookers, but Father Roy’s oil-soaked thumb slid over the skin on my forehead without protest from anyone, human or divine.
In the Catholic church, St. Jude is known as the patron saint of lost and desperate causes. Despite protests from Grandma Bauer about Jude being a boy’s name, this was the name my mom chose for me when I was born. She had been 17, only three years older than I was at my Confirmation, and the same age Jenna was when she disappeared. The boy who had gotten mom pregnant had dropped out of school to go on the road with his band, leaving her behind. She told everyone it was after the Beatles song, but I liked to think it was really St. Jude she had in mind.
I stopped going to Church when I left for college. I hadn’t forgotten my real fear of being burned alive at 14. At Penn State, I met Naomi. When we fell in love, it felt good, natural. It made sense for us to be together. Our friends fawned and giggled and snapped photos, raved about how they knew we would fall in love, although I had my suspicions that we were the only gay people they knew. After college, we moved in together. She worked at the university, and I got a job selling vitamin supplements. It wasn’t a job that made me feel good. I thought maybe vitamins would make me feel like I was easing people’s pain, but really I felt like I was selling snake oil or worse. It turns out vitamins aren’t regulated by the FDA, so they could really have anything in them, including actual snake oil. I stayed though because the money was good. My cubicle was freezing, located directly under the air vent, but it was easy for me to fade into its tan walls, one of many moving parts in a system.
I looked forward to our evenings at home. It was comfortable and rooted. The air aligned with the tracks of our routines. We pecked each other in the morning before leaving for our lives and returned in the evening to microwave vegetarian TV dinners and watch Dateline. I lived for the few hours we spent on the couch each night, leaning on her shoulder, her thumb tracing circles over my cracked, dry knuckles. Our love wasn’t passionate, but it was grounded and safe. There was a place for me. With Naomi, I wasn’t afraid of God because my place in the universe was secured. In 2016, same-sex marriage was legalized, and after ten years together, we talked about getting married.
“For the tax benefits,” she had reasoned when I brought up the idea over our TV trays.
“Sweep me off my feet why don’t you.” I sunk back into the couch cushion where the beige was fading only in the spots where we each sat every night. I couldn’t remember why we had chosen beige. More likely it was one of those circumstances where your furniture comes to you by accident. A friend moving or buying a new couch which meant the old one, that they too had inherited accidentally, was up for grabs.
Every once in a while, late at night, while Naomi snored next to me or during a lull at the office, I would type Jenna’s name into the Facebook search bar. About a hundred “Jenna Smiths” popped up, many with flowers or children as their profile picture. I wouldn’t know where she lived to confirm any of the women as her, and I supposed she could have changed her name. I tried “Jennifer Smith,” although I wasn’t entirely sure that was her full name, which yielded even more results to sift through.
When Facebook became popular, I made an account specifically to see if I could find Jenna. I thought that was my chance to finally put my mind at ease, to know that she was somewhere. It was never clear to me what had happened. One day Jenna was there, and the next she wasn’t. Her dad was gone too, and while confused at their sudden departure, no one seemed too concerned. I knew better though, at least I thought I had. Jenna would never have left me without saying so. At least I thought she wouldn’t. I knew, eventually, I would find out what happened to her, but for now, I stuck to checking news updates out of northwest Ohio and entering the same names into the Facebook search bar.
When I was confirmed, mom gave me a small card with an image of St. Jude on the front. It reminded me of a baseball card only no one really thought it was cool, and it wasn’t worth any money years later. The card had been laminated, as all saint cards were, so I could see my fingertips through the edges.
On the front, St. Jude stood with wavy brown hair and a beard. An almond shaped flame hovered orange over his head. In one hand he held what looked like a large coin with the profile of Jesus stamped on it. He held this to his chest over his green hand and held a staff in the other hand. The back of the card had a prayer to St. Jude:
“Most holy apostle, St. Jude, faithful servant and friend of Jesus, the Church honors and invokes you universally, as the patron of hopeless cases, of things almost despaired of. Pray for me, I am so helpless and alone. Make use I implore you, of that particular privilege given to you to bring visible and speedy help where help is almost despaired of.”
A year ago, Naomi met Laurie, a twenty-five-year-old adjunct history professor and started inviting her to have dinner with us. For the first time in the entire time I had known her, Naomi tried to cook. That night we had eaten burnt pitas around our rarely used kitchen table while I listened to them laugh about the annoyances of grading papers.
Several months later, Naomi told me she was leaving me. She assured me that Laurie had nothing to do with it, and she didn’t think I would be so upset because we were basically roommates anyway, which stung. She never told me where she was going, but at least she told me that she was.
Without Naomi, the apartment was stale. After a few weeks, I was becoming more and more aware that my life in Pennsylvania was just shades of tan and beige blending one day into the next. There were crumbs in my bed, and I was starting to itch.
I searched Jenna’s name on Facebook again, though at this point I figured that if I hadn’t found her in 2014, it was less likely she would pop up in 2019. It seemed that people were less and less interested in Facebook. Finding out what happened to her was seeming more and more like an impossible task. Like God had hidden her from me behind a dark shroud. Was anyone even looking for her? People seemed to forget about her so quickly when she disappeared. Did anyone even remember her now? Had she been waiting all these years for me to find her while I sat selling vitamins and kissing a woman who didn’t love me? A woman who wasn’t Jenna.
“You didn’t look at all did you?” she sobbed, chained up in some dirty basement.
“But I did! I swear I tried.” I was on my knees, begging, crying for her forgiveness, but my echoing voice only bounced back to my ears, barely a whisper.
Why wasn’t I yelling louder?
A few months after my Confirmation, Jenna and I rode our bikes over the bridge and found ourselves in a patch of trees that hung over the Maumee’s banks. Algae had turned the water green, and the smell of river water moved through the air around us as we laid on our backs, holding hands. This was our spot, just on the edge of town across its omnipresent border. We went there almost every day and would spend hours talking or kissing or playing some game or another. Sometimes she would steal a cigarette from her dad’s pack, and we would smoke it together, feeling older than we really were. In those days we spent hidden away, it became harder to discern if I was Jude or if I was Jenna, the two of us swirling and blending and dissipating into the blue sky.
“You’re Catholic, right?” she asked me.
“So does that mean you think we’re going to Hell?”
“I really try not to think about it,” I answered.
“Do you really believe any of that?”
“For a while, I really thought I was going to catch on fire at church. Right there in front of everyone. I’m serious!” I heard my voice raise in response to her chuckles. “I keep thinking about how someday I’m really going to die, and after that – ” I shifted to my left side and tried to suppress the image of her face above me as I fell into the flaming pit of sinners, their arms pulling me into their heap, crushing my lungs under their weight. I squeezed my eyes shut, trying to imagine anything else. I felt her lips on mine.
“I don’t think we’re going to Hell,” she told me, our foreheads pressed together.
“How could we not?”
She shrugged. “My dad always says that God wouldn’t make us feel something if he didn’t want us to act on it.”
“But what if he’s testing us?” I asked. “He likes to do that sort of thing. Remember Abraham and Issac?” I pulled at a string from the hole in her Looney Tunes T-shirt and twisted it around my finger, trying to break it off. The more I pulled, the more of it came out, unraveling unraveling unraveling. She grabbed my wrist to stop me from pulling the whole shirt apart.
“God doesn’t do that sort of thing in 1996.” She laughed. I laughed too, but I wasn’t so sure.
Global warming caused the levels of the Maumee River to rise dramatically in the last fifteen or so years. As I drove over the bridge into Napoleon, the waters were much higher than I remembered.
I left Napoleon for Penn State as an eighteen-year-old, swearing never to return to Ohio, and for the most part, I upheld that promise. I always paid for my mom to fly out to Pennsylvania for Christmas and Thanksgiving, and I always just called on her birthday, though she let me know that wasn’t enough for her. She was thrilled when I called to tell her I was coming back.
“How long are you thinking of staying?”
“I don’t know,” I said. “As long as you’ll have me, I guess.”
“Well, there’s always plenty of room for you here.”
At the end of the bridge, I passed under the Henry County Courthouse’s white tower jutting out of the red brick. I drove through downtown, shaded by crumbling brick façades and faded American flags. On the side of the post office, Max Webber had painted a mural dedicated to a boy killed in a car crash several years earlier along with a stone engraved with a poem warning against the dangers of drunk driving.
I took a branching street at the Lassus Handy Dandy. Grimy white siding and tall grass lined the street, decorated by porches stacked with pink Fisher Price and hand painted-signs sporting numbers taken from football jerseys. I recognized the blue and white of my high school colors, but the names were different. I passed the old house my mom and I lived in with Grandma Bauer. I remembered sitting on the front steps, holding the acoustic guitar my mom had bought me for Christmas. She was trying to teach me how to play, but I couldn’t seem to move my fingers quickly enough. Inevitably, my hand would slip, and I would play the wrong note. I never quite got the hang of it, and eventually, she stopped trying to teach me.
As I passed that other particular house, I swore I could see Jenna standing there on the porch, smoking a cigarette the way she used to when she was waiting for me to meet her. Her face got smaller as I drove further away.
My return to Napoleon had the unexpected side effect of pointing out my own estrangement. The familiar streets no longer contained the same cracks. It was as if, deep below the ground, the earth had shifted three inches to the right. I didn’t recognize the signs on the buildings. The evening I arrived, my mom caught me up on the deaths of familiar names, and the births of unfamiliar ones to unfamiliar parents.
Church hadn’t changed though, not since it was renovated at least. I walked up the steps to St. Augie’s with my mom on Sunday morning for 10 AM mass. The doors still had the same heavy iron handles that I had swung from as a kid while I waited for my mom to stop chatting.
Mom led me to the same pew, fifth from the front on the left, under the stained-glass window of Jesus cutting wood. This was our spot. Grandma Bauer had died a few years earlier, leaving Mom all alone in the pew. She seemed happier now though, all on her own. She had joined a women’s Bible group that met every Wednesday and had beers together on Sunday nights.
Being here, in the uncomfortable pew with my mom, surrounded by all the gaudy ornamentation that Napoleon could afford, I felt rooted again. I reached over and squeezed her hand and felt the familiar rough calluses on her fingers from years of guitar and sewing anything for anyone who would ask. The hardened skin reminded me of a shell, and while my mom was always generous with her time and skills, I wasn’t sure I’d ever seen her be generous with her thoughts, least of all with me. I didn’t feel a need to hear her thoughts though. Right now, she was sad for me, yes, but happier that I was home. I looked down at our hands and saw that we each had cocked our wide hips to the right, alleviating a pain in each of our left knees. When the priest motioned for us to sit, we each lowered ourselves and crossed our left legs over the right ones.
Just above my head, as it always had been, was the painted wood carving of the eighth station of the cross. Across the bottom it read, The Women of Jerusalem Weep Over Jesus. Their round blue tears were larger than their eyes. The tears slid down the body of Jesus and formed a puddle at his feet. As a child, I always felt the urge to press on the bulbous tears, and now, as an adult, I felt that same urge as I stared at the faces of the women.
Jenna’s dad had a cabin near the Maumee where he fished on weekends in the summer. He brought Jenna with him most weekends, and she would always come back smelling like sweat and smoke and fish. One weekend, two summers after my Confirmation, Jenna invited me to go with her. Grandma Bauer insisted that I bring my rosary for protection. She did this whenever I would leave the house for more than eight hours, but she seemed especially insistent this time.
“I just don’t know what to make of her dad,” Grandma Bauer had said, and while my mom rolled her eyes, I could tell she didn’t exactly like the idea either.
The weekend was hot and muggy. Jenna’s dad sat in a lawn chair and drank Bud Light like it was water, the way my mom would when her friends would come over and sit around the fire pit in the backyard. He would call for a new can when his was empty, and Jenna would have to drop whatever we were doing to rush to the cooler and hand him another dripping beer. I hadn’t quite registered the way his hand lingered on her wrist when she handed him a can. The way he watched when she walked away. Now, when I reflected on those memories, his hands seemed to linger for longer. His lips seemed to curl more maliciously.
For the most part, that weekend was all about sweating and slapping mosquitos and kissing in the trees while country songs floated from the radio.
The last night we were there, Jenna and I sat on the floor in the tiny damp room we both slept in, giggling and imagining the kind of house we would live in when we got older. Her dad snored loudly on the other side of the cabin.
“Your dad really thinks it’s okay to act on all of your feelings?”
“So does that mean he knows about you and me?” I asked. I knew that he didn’t, but the way she talked about him never seemed to match the desperation with which she hid our interactions from him, the distance she held between us when he was looking.
“No,” she said. I expected her to explain, but she didn’t.
“I mean, if he’s so open-minded, why not?”
She was looking away from me now, staring out the black window. She still didn’t answer. I fidgeted a bit, knowing I had brought up something uncomfortable without realizing its depth, unsure of how to bring us back to something lighter.
“I’m not going to tell him, Jude.” The words were quick and sharp, punctuated by my name in a way that was meant to end the conversation. I stared down at my hands for a few moments, picking at the skin around my thumbs. The silence stretched on, and she continued to stare out the window.
“I’m sorry.” I said, still looking down. “I didn’t mean to upset you. I didn’t mean that you should tell him. I only meant—I was just wondering—but obviously that’s not really any of my business—That was pretty invasive of—” I was trying to roll that silence backwards to where we could be laughing again.
“It’s not you,” she said. In that moment, she sounded much younger than she was. She was still staring out the window, but her shoulders had drooped.
“Jude, I want to tell you something, but you have to swear you won’t tell anyone.” She finally swung her head to look at me. “Do you swear?”
She was quiet again for a long while, turning her head to stare back out the window. I almost thought she had changed her mind, but eventually she spoke.“I was surprised when my dad let you come this weekend. He usually likes it to be just us, so he can—” She paused again, sucked in a breath of air, and stared over.
“When my dad says God wouldn’t make us feel things if he didn’t want us to act on them, he’s talking about himself. He wouldn’t say that about me, he doesn’t mean me.”
“I don’t think I understand.”
“He says I belong to him. That I’m his and only his. If he knew about us—I know he’d kill you.” Tears glinted gold on her face. She swung her head to face me again.
“Because he thinks you belong to him?”
“Yes. And because—because he doesn’t want anyone else to have me the way he does. The way you have me.”
The way I had her when she was pressed against my body, held close, gasping, humming, cheeks pink. But then it wasn’t me. It was him, and she was crying. She was screaming. She was quiet. Pliant. Limp. I felt as though I was suspended in the air, my toes dangling far above solid ground.
“Jenna, I think we have to go to the police. He can’t keep doing this to you.”
“No! No, you can’t tell anyone, Jude. He said if I told anyone, he’d kill me, please please don’t say anything. It’s okay. I’m okay. Promise you won’t say anything.” She was gasping, drowning, desperate.
“Do you really, though?” I nodded, grabbed her hand and hooked my pinky around hers. “I promise.”
I longed for something rooted, deep and familiar. I wanted desperately to do something, anything to bring Jenna down to the ground, to safety with me, and the first thing I pictured was St. Augies with it huge stained-glass windows and that old old Bible. There was something deep and old and established in there.
I reached in my bag and pulled out my rosary. The purple glass beads glinted in the yellow light of the cabin.
“You should have this,” I said. “It can help protect you.” Grandma Bauer had bought me that rosary for my Confirmation, and I knew it wasn’t cheap. Nevertheless, I held it out to her with conviction, feeling as though somehow, I could extend that old established stability to her.
“But I’m not Catholic,” she said as she took it in her hands, rolling the beads between her fingers.
“You can still use it, though.”
“Will you show me how?” I placed my hands over hers and guided her to the silver cross at the end of the rosary.
“Here you say the Apostle’s Creed.” Gently, I led her fingers up the beads. “Here, the Our Father. Here the Hail Mary, three times. Here, the Glory Be.”
“I don’t know any of those,” she said.
“Oh. I can write them down for you—” I started to reach for my bag again, but she stopped me.
“Just show me one for now. Show me the Glory Be.”
“Okay,” I said, turning back to her and guiding her hand to the right bead. “It goes, ‘Glory be to the Father, Son, and the Holy Spirit. As it was in the beginning, it is now and ever shall be, world without end. Amen,’” I recited.
When we had gone through the whole thing, she carefully wrapped the rosary in a t-shirt, lifted a loose floorboard and placed it in the hollow space.
Two weeks later, Jenna was gone. Popped out of existence as if she had just burst into pieces and drifted into the atmosphere.
“Her and her dad moved out last night. Their neighbor, Mrs. Behrman, called this morning to tell me,” I heard my mom say through the open window. I sat down on the front porch steps.
“Just like that? They didn’t tell anybody beforehand?” Grandma Bauer asked.
“It’s definitely weird,” Mom responded. “But it’s also not really any of our business, is it?” I knew she wasn’t interested in prying into other people’s business, not since she herself had been the subject of town gossip when she had gotten pregnant in high school.
I stood up, prepared to burst into the house, pick up the phone, and tell the cops everything I knew, but then, thinking of Jenna’s gasping plea, I stopped. The tears brimming around the rims of my eyelids felt large and bulbous.
At thirty-six years old, I laid in my childhood bed and had a vision. I woke up quite suddenly in the middle of the night and cracked my eyes open to a light shining into my room. I squinted against the light, but when my eyes adjusted, I saw him. Good old St. Jude standing there in the yellow light of the streetlamp outside my window. His hair billowed around a bit, and even though that flame over his head flickered, he had nothing to say. In fact, he looked bored, and as he held out his hand to me, I swore he rolled his eyes.
I looked down at the palm he had extended to me, and saw that he was holding my rosary, its purple glass beads glinting in the light from the streetlamp. I sat up to reach for it, but St. Jude closed his holy fingers around it and faded away.
The next night, I waited for my mom to go to bed. She had been up late with her Bible group, so by the time I was able to set out, it was already close to midnight, and it had started to rain. I got out of bed and dug around in the kitchen junk drawer for the hammer I knew my mom kept there. When I found it, I grabbed my coat and headed to my car.
I had spent all day thinking about St. Jude and my rosary. Why had he shown it to me, and then immediately taken it away, taken himself away? I felt I had been so close to some real answer, but I suppose he was just showing me an image. I felt compelled to return to the place I had last seen it, as though holding it again might finally bring those answers to me. Maybe he would appear to me again once I had found what he wanted.
I sped down the road, rain blurring my windshield. I still remembered where the cabin was. I hadn’t been out there since that weekend I spent with Jenna, but the route was burned into my brain.
When I arrived, I saw that climate change had brought the river right up to the cabin. The back quarter of the house sat in the water, and likely no one had tended to it since Jenna and her dad had. It sat on a slope with a crawl space that allowed for a level main floor. Water had completely flooded the crawl space and was threatening to spill into the main floor. The windows were broken. The wood was rotting away, and tall grass grew up around the sides. The door creaked open without any resistance. The river was creeping up in the back of the house where Jenna’s room was. The floorboards were spongy under my feet. I stepped over the saturated planks to the back room, careful not to put too much of my weight on them. As I did, I swore I could see two young girls huddled on the floor, trailing their fingers over a rosary, over each other’s skin, through each other’s hair.
I used the hammer to pull a long nail free of the soggy wood and wrenched a plank away from the other floorboards. Wet splinters slithered under my skin, and I could hear the river rushing under my feet. I threw the plank, hearing it splash and clatter behind me. It had to be here. It had to be here. It had to be here. Nothing.
I grabbed another and pulled, breaking it free. Still nothing. The next board snapped in half, having lost its integrity to the water. I continued to pull the floorboards up, continued to find nothing. The hollow space under the boards had begun to fill with water. I pulled another floorboard up, and as I did, I heard a crash. Somewhere deep in the foundations of the house, something broke. The whole room began to collapse into the flooded crawl space. The floor crumbled around me. I could see the water flooding through the holes opening in the floor, and the room tilted. Soon there would be no place for me to stand. I fell backwards against the wall as the back of the house broke off and began to slide down the slope into the river.
When the walls hit the water, the rotted wood crumbled and splintered, allowing the river to pour in and sweep my body away. There was a great roaring as I tumbled. I struggled against the force of the water, trying to keep my head up, but bits of wood were still sailing downstream and knocking me under. I looked for the bank, but in the dark and the rain, I couldn’t tell which way it was. I saw Napoleon drifting away from me, the white tower of the Henry County Courthouse getting smaller and smaller as I was pulled away by the current. I saw a large portion of the roof sail towards me. I couldn’t do much before it slammed into my body, engulfing me under its weight. My head was forced under, and water gushed into my nose, my mouth, my ears. The rushing seemed to slow, and I saw her. I saw Jenna, smoking on the porch, kissing me behind the bleachers, stealing cigarettes from her dad, and laying on her back in the long grass, hands outstretched toward the sky, green algae swirling around her. I saw Naomi, trapped and bored. Saw her in bed with Laurie, moaning a name that was neither “Laurie” nor “Jude.” I saw my mom, still a teenager, wrapped in Grandma Bauer’s arms as I ripped into the world. The three of us screamed together, and bulbous tears ran down each of our faces. I pressed up against the portion of the roof that was holding me under, unable to lift it without leverage from the bed of the river. I saw Grandma Bauer, at her funeral, grasping her rosary in her casket, still praying to keep the Maumee River from flooding and washing her whole home away. Myself, driving far away from that home. I pushed for several more moments, lungs beginning to collapse, threatening to breathe in the water. Would they ever find me in the river? Would my body wash up miles away from here, bloated and blue? Or would they never find me? Would my mom never know what happened? No funeral. Just a missing person sign stapled to the telephone pole outside the Lassus Handy Dandy, my mom crying in our pew asking God where I had gone? I saw the Women of Jerusalem weeping above her head.
I slid my hands up the underside of the roof and felt my fingertips break the surface of the water. Gripping the edge, I pulled. My body slid, as my hands had, along the underside of the roof until I was able to pull my head into the air, coughing and spilling water from my mouth. I turned my face to the sky, blinking water from my eyes and saw the stars glinting. The light from each streaked in lines across the sky. They seemed to be stretching out their arms, reaching for one another, connecting together like the beads of a rosary.
H. Neiling is currently pursuing their Ph.D at Northern Illinois University.
© 2021, H. Neiling