The Communion of Saints
Nick Kocz


Every night, somewhere, there is a procession of sad children crying. The processions happen all over the world, the children’s teardrops coming slowly, their skin ivory like medieval madonnas and their eyes a feathery abundance of blue irises and expansive black eyelashes. You will think I’m making this up. The children file into paneled drawing rooms at lavish social gatherings and stare at us.

“See here,” an elderly gentleman says, upset and waving his brass-knobbed cane. He wears a white cashmere suit, a speckled blue bow tie under the collar of his white shirt: the uniform of someone seeking attention, his silver hair pompadoured and pomaded. “I demand to know who let you into our affair.”

Tears fall onto the children’s bare feet, glistening their toes. The ache of emptiness fills our hearts, a queer sensation for us who have not felt empty in recent years. Empty like a vessel might feel when drained of its water: empty and purposeless. Although you won’t believe me, the children’s faces glow with a radiance rarely encountered outside of old Hollywood movie stills. We drop to our knees, me included, and touch the tears that bead on the glazed hardwood floors. When we look up again, the children have vanished. I am unsure how I find myself in this drawing room where the children no longer are. None of us photographed them, so startled were we by their presence that the contemporary reflex impulse to document every blessèd moment of our existence failed to kick in.

A blonde woman searches her handbag for her iPhone, causing inadvertently her house keys to jingle onto the floor.

The elderly gentleman cocks his head. “Just what do you think you’re doing?”

The woman squares her shoulders and presses digits into her phone and it occurs to me that she is a beautiful woman who does not care to exploit her beauty, attired as she is in the kind of dowdy blue dress that a grandmother might wear to a grandchild’s high school graduation, proper yet not alluring, the fabric drawn tightly at the neck. Her tasteful gold brooch and pearl earrings, the minimum jewelry that is required of women at lavish social gatherings, seem like an afterthought. “I’m calling my brother. He’s the third-most popular blogger for The Huffington Post.”

The elderly man swings his brass-knobbed cane, smashing the phone from her hands . Parts of the phone’s plastic housing sail across the room, landing in a tooled four-foot-high copper vase where gladiolas are bunched. Cowardly as I am, I glance at the woman as if to say, Hey, it’s not my fault. The elderly gentleman cackles, but the woman is undeterred.

She struts forward. “We just witnessed something miraculous. We’ve got a duty to tell others.”

You will not believe me when I say that when I heard the word, miraculous, a heat so scorchingly hot blew over my face that I feared my eyebrows were singed. And you will not believe me when I say that I knew instantly that she was right: this apparition that we had witnessed was a miracle.

“It was not a miracle,” the elderly gentleman says, waving about a brass-knobbed cane. Turning to address the others, he winks at me as if we are sharing a joke. “Seven children who barge uninvited into a party fall below the threshold of miraculous wonder. So they cried—what of it?”

II

A few months ago, about an hour away, a father shot his three daughters and then turned the .380 caliber handgun on himself. The youngest of the girls was eight. It was one of the local stories that stick with you if you have children. Did I tell you about this? The week beforehand, the father was in a motorcycle accident and messed up his leg something bad, which prompted his wife to leave him. Because of the injury, the lumberyard where he worked let him go. That’s what you get in a right-to-work state: the right to lose your job at a moment’s notice. Mind you, I’m not advocating the killing of one’s children, but my heart went out to him and his little girls, who are no longer playing softball, the activity that the newspaper said they enjoyed most.

I’m no trauma vulture but three days after it happened, I drove to that house on Jonestown Road. As I said, these things stick with you. They were rural poor, the Sims family. I parked along a dried-out creek bed. Though it was three o’clock in the afternoon, roosters crowed. Friends had attached three teddy bears to the front gate and to each teddy bear arm was strung a Mylar helium balloon, the festive type you buy at supermarkets to celebrate children’s birthdays. The house behind that gate was white but dingy, a slapped-together single floor structure that might resemble a “ranch house” if it was bigger and in better repair and located in a suburban neighborhood populated by the doctors and lawyers, bankers and policy analysts that hold this nation together.

My thought was to write a poem about this but I haven’t been able to write anything since I visited there, so please bear with me.

A slate-gray DISH-TV satellite dish was nailed atop a wooden post from which clotheslines were strung. Two rows of corn grew in a small garden. Because we were in the midst of a drought, the leaves on their stalks had a lifeless droop though the tomatoes on the vines were red enough to eat. Tomatoes, strangely, were on my mind. Over the summer, we drove seven hundred miles to see my parents for what was supposed to be a weeklong visit. On the second day there, my father complained about my three-year old daughter, Ellie, how she had torn a couple of the green tomatoes from his vines. He was upset about this, irrationally so—shouting, slamming his fist on the knotted pine hallway walls, and as a result we had to cut short the stay. This is what I thought about as I looked at the Sims’ tomatoes which, as I said, were red enough to eat.

I don’t want to exploit a stereotype, but because they were rural poor, a scattering of non-decorative objects littered the Sims’ yard: a refrigerator; an antique oven, porcelain white, with a cast-iron stovetop; a bright orange pail-and-shovel set, plastic, such as a child might use; inner tubes; and a Ford Aerostar van, its silver paint flecking to gray on that sunny day. Whoever put the refrigerator in the yard—and it must have been standing there for some months—had taken care to remove its door so that children could not be tempted to go inside and suffocate themselves.

A rusty television aerial antenna, hulking and bent, was bracketed to the roof but leaning precariously. My impression was that it would come crashing down come the next big storm. The thing was huge. The Sims’ house clung to the side of a hill, so television reception must have been something awful; before DISH-TV came along, they must have thought it was the answer to all their prayers, this television antenna that loomed over their house.

Outside the gate, I stared at the helium-filled balloons tied to the teddy bear arms. The teddy bear hands were lifted by the strings tied to those floating balloons and, in the unseen breeze, it appeared that the bears were waving their paws at me. Three paws waving at me; that is what I saw.

One of the neighbors drove up in a small red sedan. The driver rolled down the window. She told me that the family wouldn’t appreciate me wandering inside their property and I told her that I did not want to go inside. That is how she referred to them: the family. Because she had no upper teeth, I recognized her from the interviews she gave to local newscasters about the tragedy. Her car wasn’t in good shape either: as it idled, the engine made a clicking sound and I had the suspicion that if she flipped open the hood, I’d find that the whole things was held together by coat hangers. Throughout our conversation, she kept both hands on the steering wheel. Between two fingers on her left hand, she balanced a burning cigarette. Though I didn’t ask, she told me about the father.

“He was happy,” she said. “We always seen him playing outside with his kids.”

The ash on the cigarette grew and I found myself looking at it with lurid fascination: one small tilt of her hand or even a strong breeze through the open window would topple it. The woman’s daughter had played with the dead girls, she said, but I got the impression that she didn’t know the father well. Already he had passed from being an actual neighbor into a kind of enigma. What she told me was vague, limited to the level of detail that one could have gleaned from newspaper accounts, yet she found the need to soldier on, to keep repeating the same empty insights. Though it retained its form, almost her whole cigarette had passed to ash: it was just one long cylinder of ash. Finally, she winced as though about to cry. Her chest heaved, yet miraculously the ash did not fall. “I don’t know what happened to him. Something clicked.”

How do you explain a guy who shoots his three daughters? I did not envy her task. The rooster crowed again in the distance. They might have been her roosters for all I knew.

The woman told me she was driving off to the funeral home. The family, or what remained of it, was receiving friends that afternoon and I said that I hoped she had a good trip. A woman like that needs all the luck in the world.

After she drove off, I stood at the front gate. The screen door at the side of the house closest to the vegetable garden was not latched. Each time the wind blew, it banged against the door jam, startling me. I kept expecting someone to storm out, shotgun in hand, to shoo me away. Which was silly, really, because I knew the house was empty.

III

The woman in the dowdy blue dress walks across the room of this lavish social gathering, kneels down and picks up scraps of broken phone, the largest of which is shaped like Alaska, a state I’ve never been. Why she wants it I do not know, since clearly function has been ripped out of it; they have no use, these pieces of wire and transistor and motherboard.

“What do you think?” she asks, peering up to me. She touches my knee and I feel the heat of everyone’s attention on me. She has clear green eyes that rarely blink and silky blonde hair the color of sunshine in animated cartoons, the hair smooth and looking like it would be soft to the touch. “Did we see a miracle?”

What got to me most were the pink and purple Mylar balloons tied to the teddy bear arms. The wind kept bouncing the balloons together. And the sound they made, the balloons tapping against each other, hollow vessel nudging hollow vessel, the clash of their Mylar skins. I don’t think I can describe that sound. Can you?

Nor, living in this miracle-free age when only the psychotically disturbed are expected to experience visions that cannot be readily explained, do I feel I can answer the woman’s questions. She rights herself to her feet, straightening her dress. Other guests at this lavish social gathering are starting back in on their trays of truffled canapés and moaning about the ephemeral tang of imported sheep cheeses. The woman leans into me, her hair smelling clean as if it were just washed with one of the honeysuckle organic shampoos that even convenience stores now carry, and whispers, “You’ve still got time to recant.”

“I do?”

The elderly gentleman elbows through the crowd, taking it upon himself to respond to the woman on my behalf. There are a million reasons, all of them plausible, why recantation is not in anyone’s best interest—least of all mine, he says—but it is too late: I am crying and he can not save me. He clicks his cane to the hardwood floor and in the faint creases that web the corner of his eyes, an uneasiness that I have not before perceived becomes apparent. My arms lift and suddenly I’m waving goodbye to him, the tears warm on my cheeks as I rise higher and higher, passing through the ceiling and becoming airborne over the wind-swept valleys and vast suburban brickscapes until I find myself in a flock of children, all of us crying, all of us alighting eventually on one of the processions of sad children crying that are repeated every day all over the land.



Nick Kocz’s work has appeared in Black Warrior Review, The Florida Review, Mid-American Review, and PANK.