He scraped the back of his hand against the stubble on his chin. He was a mess, all right. Through and through. His life today bore no resemblance to the one he’d expected to lead. Sure, he was a rancher, after a fashion. Although he acted more like his father’s hired hand. But somehow he thought his life would add up to more. He’d thought he’d be respected, like his father was. That he’d be in charge…of something. That he’d have more to show for the work he did.
Instead, he was a joke.
No one took him seriously. They certainly didn’t look up to him. He couldn’t blame them, either. He spent his time goofing off, drinking, sleeping around, and playing jokes on everyone who came near.
"Been a while, Rob."
Startled, Rob glanced up to see Reverend Joe Halpern standing at the end of the pew.
"Sure has." He ducked his head, embarrassed to be caught here.
"Don’t mind me," Joe said, as if reading his thoughts. He was a husky man in his late 60’s. Out of his Sunday garb he looked like any other rancher in these parts. His jeans strained below a somewhat protruding belly. A green button-down shirt was tucked in neatly at his waist. "I’ll go about my business unless you’d like some company."
Suddenly Rob found it difficult to speak. He could use a little company right now. Anything to stop the dark thoughts that chattered in his mind.
Joe nodded as if he understood. "I remember when you used to come to church like clockwork – all you Matheson boys did back then. I had the feeling you didn’t mind it as much as the others, though, even though your parents had to herd the lot of you between them like so many cattle. You were only a pipsqueak and I had a full head of hair back in those days."
Rob nodded. He remembered those days, too. The reverend was right; he hadn’t minded church that much when he was young. For one hour a week his brothers couldn’t hassle him and no one said a word if he kept his mouth shut and daydreamed. As Halpern’s voice droned on above him, he’d think about the stones he’d found in the creek that morning, how they’d got there and why there were different colors, or about the grouse he’d snuck up on, or why sometimes clouds were fat and puffy and sometimes thin as pulled cotton.
He was happiest when he was alone, and quiet – watching something. Learning about it.
But no one ever left him alone. Not for long, anyhow.
"Mind if I take a seat?" Joe prompted.
"Make yourself at home," Rob said and it occurred to him it was a particularly stupid thing to say to a man of God in his own church. Still, he slid over and made room.
"Just say the word and I’ll leave you to your thoughts," Joe said. "But in my experience, when a man shows up in church at this time of the morning, dressed in the same clothes he went out in last night, he might be looking to make some changes in his life."
"Yeah," Rob said. "You got that right."
"Tell me about it." Joe settled back, his gaze fixed on the pulpit at the front of the sanctuary. Like being in confession, Rob thought, as he sat back, too. His own gaze forward. If they had some walls around them they might be Catholics. Maybe the Catholics had the right idea.
"Not much to tell," he started. "Just…this isn’t who I want to be."
"Who do you want to be?"
"I don’t know. A good man. Useful." That brought Georgette to mind again. Her clinging grasp and the way she’d dismissed his worth with a single word. Useless. Useless but pretty.
Son of a bitch. He glanced toward the ceiling. Sorry.
Joe nodded. "Do you have a calling?"
A calling? "Like being a preacher?" That was the last thing he’d ever be. He tried to picture himself in that pulpit, preaching a moral lesson to the congregation. The idea was laughable.
But it sparked another memory. An idea he’d had as a small boy, right in this church one Sunday morning. He’d been feeling particularly aggrieved at the way Ned and Luke liked to rush up whenever they spotted him and scare away the bird he’d been stalking, or stomp to bits the nest he’d found, or splash in the water of Chance Creek until every fish for a mile went into hiding.
With the ignorance of youth, he’d thought that if only he could stand in Halpern’s pulpit, he could take on the minister’s authority and turn of phrase. He could tell everyone in the congregation about all the wondrous things he saw on the Matheson ranch – the tiny bugs and the towering trees; the ceaseless life that teemed and thronged in the grasses; the ever-shifting shades of light that filtered through pine branches in the hills; the sound of the water that ran in the creek – and by telling them about it, he could teach them to know God. No one ever interrupted the reverend when he was preaching. Maybe if Rob was able to preach in his own way, people would listen to him. And if the congregation listened to him, then his family would have to listen to him, as well. And then maybe his father would stop rushing around and barking orders all the time, and his brothers would stop bickering and pushing him around and…
Beating on him.
Joe held his silence beside him and Rob was thankful for that.
No amount of talking about the natural wonders surrounding their home had stopped Ned from kicking his ass. Boys were boys, and four boys were too many for one ranch. He’d soon learned to cultivate his fists, his careless attitude and a wicked way of playing jokes that made his enemies the laughing stocks of all their friends. Ned backed off…in time.
"I’m not sure," he said finally, the memories making him raw. Coming here was a mistake. There weren’t any answers for him in church.
"I think the trick is to think about who you were before the world got to you," Joe said.
Rob looked at him in surprise. A bit too close to his own train of thought.
Joe grimaced. "I see more of what goes on from that pulpit than people think," he said. "It looks like I’m the one on display – front and center for everyone to stare at when I preach. What people don’t realize is from up there I can look just as hard at each and every one of them."
Huh. That put Sunday mornings in a whole new light.
"I see who’s here and who’s not." He elbowed Rob good-naturedly. "I see who sits next to whom. Who chooses a pew down front and who hides in the back. Who’s playing hangman with his brother instead of listening to my sermon. Who’s got a black eye and who’s wiping away tears. The Mathesons are good people, solid citizens. Your father’s done his best with his ranch and with the four of you. But every family’s got its strengths and weaknesses, Rob. Your dad is loyal, strong, dependable. He’s got no head for learning, though, and that’s a shame. I always thought you’d head out to the University."